The Vintage Thrillers of John Buchan

In John Buchan's The Power-House (1916), set in the golden twilight of the Edwardian era, a rising young barrister named Edward Leithen suffers a minor automobile mishap on a twisty country road. Luckily, he notices a well-maintained estate nearby, requests assistance, and soon finds himself ushered into the library of an apparent scholar. He is greeted there by the elderly but vigorous Andrew Lumley, a gentleman of impeccable manners and consummate courtesy. Nonetheless, Lumley's after-dinner conversation proves unnerving:

"Did you ever reflect, Mr. Leithen, how precarious is the tenure of the civilization we boast about? … Reflect, and you will find that the foundations are sand. You think that a wall as solid as the earth separates civilization from barbarism. I tell you the division is a thread, a sheet of glass. A touch here, a push there, and you bring back the reign of Saturn."

Lumley insists, for all the world like one of our modern radio conservatives, that "when all is said and done, we are ruled by the amateurs and the second-rate. The methods of our departments would bring any private firm to bankruptcy. The methods of Parliament—pardon me—would disgrace any board of directors." What the world needs, according to Lumley, is "direction." Given the right energizing force, what he calls a "power-house," he delares that "the age of miracles will begin."


Leithen is badly shaken by his host and his ideas. "The man had a curious terror for me, a terror I cannot hope to analyze and reproduce for you. My bald words can give no idea of the magnetic force of his talk, the sense of brooding and unholy craft," above all the impression of "vast powers and banked-up fires." Before long, Leithen discovers that his new acquaintance, like Professor Moriarty in the Sherlock Holmes stories, controls an invisible criminal empire; beneath his smiling, courtly mask he is both unrelenting and utterly ruthless. When, at the novel's climax, the young lawyer desperately needs to deliver an incriminating document to the French embassy, Leithen finally realizes just how vulnerable we all are, even when surrounded by a noisy and busy metropolis:

I was alone in that crowd, isolated and proscribed, and there was no help save in my own wits. … Now I saw how thin is the protection of civilization. An accident and a bogus ambulance—a false charge and a bogus arrest—there were a dozen ways of spiriting me out of this gay, bustling world.

Merely to traverse the equivalent of a few city blocks, Leithen must call on every subterfuge he can think of to escape a net fast closing around him. Eventually, though, he pauses for a moment, imagining that he is temporarily safe:

"A little group of workmen with their tools were standing by the kerb, and they suddenly moved towards me. A pavement artist, who looked like a cripple, scrambled to his feet and moved in the same direction. There was a policeman at the corner, and I saw a well-dressed man go up to him, say something and nod in my direction, and the policeman too began to move towards me."

Leithen, no fool, starts to run.


Welcome, dear reader, to the thriller-world of John Buchan, a world of secret societies, anarchist plots, fanatical visionaries, shifting identities, and dark games of domination and submission. While Buchan's various protagonists—in particular, the lonely Edward Leithen and the more famous Richard Hannay—are sometimes snidely condescended to as mere "clubland heroes," their adventures repeatedly take up fundamental questions of human and political interaction: How do you distinguish between friend and foe? Mask and reality? How do you confront adversaries who either disdain or only mimic the established forms of civilized behavior?


The remarkable John Buchan was born in 1875, grew up in a modest Scots household, and attended Glasgow University and Brasenose College, Oxford. While still a student, he published three novels and many short stories, then graduated with first-class honors in Classics. As a young man, he worked as a lawyer, a publisher's editor, and a journalist. Besides the thrillers for which he is now largely remembered, Buchan produced works of history, biography, and historical fiction, not to overlook volumes as different as The Law Relating to the Taxation of Foreign Income and the autobiographical Memory Hold-the-Door (aka Pilgrim's Rest). Committed to leading an active civic life, Buchan headed Britain's department of information (i.e., propaganda) during World War I, served as a member of Parliament in the late 1920s, and in 1935 was made governor-general of Canada, at the same time being raised to the peerage as Lord Tweedsmuir. In private, this multi-talented civil servant and man of letters suffered from a painful duodenal ulcer, loved outdoor sports (especially fishing and mountain climbing), and was devoted to his family. In 1940 Buchan died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage at the relatively young age of 65.


While contemporary British thriller writers like Sapper (creator of Bulldog Drummond) and Dornford Yates (whose "Berry and Co." books chronicle the semi-humorous adventures of an extended upper-class family) are now largely unread, Buchan has escaped oblivion because of the "precipitous yarn" that made his name: The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915). Even people who've never enjoyed the novel know the general outline of its plot from Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 film. Having made his "pile" as a mining engineer in South Africa, Richard Hannay returns to pre-World War I London, where he finds himself bored and lonely. But not for long. In short order, he learns of a secret conspiracy, discovers the dead body of an American named Scudder in his flat, and impulsively goes on the run from both the police and a powerful circle of mysterious foreign agents. His only clue to the latter's covert purpose lies in an enigmatic phrase, "the thirty-nine steps."


Hitchcock altered the book's action significantly—the music hall performer "Mr. Memory" doesn't figure in the novel, nor is Hannay ever handcuffed to an attractive young woman. For the modern thriller reader, The Thirty-Nine Steps stands out for its unusually jaunty tone. Dodging his pursuers with one trick after another, Hannay views his adventure as an especially spirited version of hide-and-seek or a slightly dangerous prep-school lark: "I am an ordinary sort of fellow, not braver than other people, but I hate to see a good man downed, and that long knife would not be the end of Scudder if I could play the game in his place."


Periodically, Hannay entrusts his safety to men who seem "clean" or "white." But how does one tell a possible ally from a well camouflaged enemy? At one point, the fugitive asks for help from a plump gentleman, whose study is filled with books and curiosities: "His face was round and shiny, like Mr. Pickwick's, big glasses were stuck on the end of his nose, and the top of his head was as bright and bare as a glass bottle." Is this Dickensian character the innocent he appears to be? As Hannay observes, those who really act a part submerge themselves entirely in their personae: "A fool tries to look different; a clever man looks the same and is different."


The Thirty-Nine Steps is a rattling good yarn, but one must be prepared for certain period prejudices. Before he is murdered by the Black Stone, the American agent Scudder tells Hannay that "if you're on the biggest kind of job and are bound to get to the real boss, ten to one you are brought up against a little, white-faced Jew in a bathchair, with an eye like a rattlesnake. Yes, sir, he is the man who is ruling the world just now." An abhorrent stereotype, yes, but it's important to underscore that these are the opinions of a character, not necessarily the author. Later in the novel, Sir Walter Bullivant, head of the British secret service, stresses that Scudder "had a lot of odd biases … Jews, for example, made him see red. Jews and the high finance."


After the success of The Thirty-Nine Steps, Buchan brought out The Power-House—the first adventure of Edward Leithen, a buttoned-down barrister rather like himself—and then followed with the second Hannay story: Greenmantle. The latter is remarkable on several counts. For one, it's an undercover spy novel, set behind enemy lines and published in the middle of World War I. Second, it focuses on German military strategy in the Middle East. And third, it introduces several "regulars" of the Buchan universe. One is the American "businessman" John S. Blenkiron, who nurses (like his creator) a duodenal ulcer, drinks only milk, plays constant games of patience, and is possibly the greatest secret agent alive. The other is "Sandy" Arbuthnot, later Lord Clanroyden, who is clearly modeled after Sir Richard Burton, the dashing Aubrey Herbert, and T. E. Lawrence ("of Arabia"). Sandy speaks exotic languages like a native, has spent time in the Far East studying the occult, and is a master of disguise. "In the caravanserais of Bokhara and Samarkand he is known, and there are shikaris in the Pamirs who still speak of him round their fires…. If Fate compelled you to go to Lhasa or Yarkand or Seistan he could map your road for you and pass the word to potent friends." The last of the heroes is the old South African hunter, scout, and survivalist, Peter Pienaar. It was Pienaar who taught Hannay that "if you were going to play a part, you must think yourself into it, convince yourself that you were it, till you really were it and didn't act but behaved naturally."


When Sir Walter Bullivant's son—working as a field agent—is killed, he only has time to pass on a half-sheet of notepaper with three scribbled words: "Kasredin," "cancer," and "v. I." No one can make much of them. Still, British intelligence has picked up rumors of a big German operation in the Middle East, one involving "some holy thing, some book or gospel, or some new prophet from the desert." Sir Walter stresses that reports from agents everywhere tell the same story: "The East is waiting for a revelation. It has been promised one. Some star—man, prophecy, or trinket—is coming out of the West." For the British at war with Germany, the stakes "are no less than victory and defeat."


And so Hannay, Blenkiron, and Arbuthnot, later joined by Pienaar, undertake a suicide mission that will take them through Germany and down the Danube, first to Constantinople and later into the heart of Asia Minor. Along the way they will encounter the sado-masochistic commandant Ulrich von Stumm, whose bedroom is decorated like a woman's boudoir; the vengeful Rasta Bey, who guesses the truth about the disguised Hannay; and the dervish-like members of a strange cult known as "The Companions of the Rosy Hours." Most dangerous of all, though, is Hilda von Einem, feared by all who serve her, a slender beautiful woman with a delicate face and eyes that can see into a man's soul. At the novel's climax, Hannay and his friends will reunite for a last stand against insuperable odds, even as Islamic prophecies find their unexpected fulfillment.


Hannay—now Brigadier General Hannay—returns in Mr. Standfast (1919), where he re-encounters the German mastermind of The Thirty-Nine Steps and meets the woman who will become his wife. I will say no more of it, nor of Edward Leithen's subsequent exploits in John MacNab (1925), The Dancing Floor (1926), and The Gap in the Curtain (1932). In the last Leithen novel, Sick Heart River (1941)—a wonderful title sadly changed to Mountain Meadow in the American edition—the now very distinguished lawyer, and former Solicitor-General, travels to Canada for what Peter Pan once called the last and greatest adventure.


That final Leithen—published just after its author's own death—may be the most personal of Buchan's thrillers, but his best is, to my mind, the fourth and last Hannay adventure, The Three Hostages (1924). The novel opens after the war, when Sir Richard and Mary, Lady Hannay, have both retired from derring-do. They intend to cultivate their garden—or rather their landed estate—and to hunt and fish and rear their young son. But, inevitably, a dire emergency arises and old friends turn to Hannay for help.


The world's police are quietly closing in on a vast criminal organization, but its unknown leader has almost preternaturally sensed that his operations are being threatened. To thwart any serious interference, this mastermind orders three people kidnapped: "the daughter of the richest man in the world, the heir of our greatest dukedom, the only child of a national hero." The three hostages seemingly disappear from the face of the earth.


"Why the devil can't I be left alone?" cries Sir Richard. "I don't ask for much—only a little peace." But Lady Hannay, particularly touched by the plight of the kidnapped little boy—it could be their own son—quietly tells her husband: "Of course you are going to help." The only clues are contained in a bit of eerie doggerel that refers to a place under the midnight sun, a blind spinner beside a sacred tree, and a sower in the fields of Eden.


Through unlikely means, Hannay links the odd bit of verse to Dominick Medina, a young politician of Irish descent, who is also an admired, if rather melancholy poet. (W. B. Yeats believed he was the partial model for Medina.) All London, it would seem, is under the spell of this charismatic and "extraordinarily attractive" charmer. "He has a curious musical voice and eyes that warm you—glow like sunlight." When Hannay finally meets Medina, he too is immediately entranced: "He greeted me as if he had been living for this hour."


While Hannay is eager to recruit Medina as an ally in the search for the three hostages, Sandy Arbuthnot remains distinctly hesitant. "I had a friend who knew him," he says, and then adds, without explanation, that "Medina didn't do him any good." Meanwhile, Buchan keeps even his walk-on characters talking about subconscious impulses, hypnotic powers, and mass persuasion.


After a Thursday Club dinner, Hannay readily accepts an invitation for a nightcap at Medina's house. The pair naturally ensconce themselves in the library:

It was oblong, with deep bays at each end, and it was lined from floor to ceiling with books. Books, too, were piled on the tables, and sprawled on a big flat couch which was drawn up before the fire. It wasn't an ordinary gentleman's library … It was the working collection of a scholar, and the books had that used look which makes them the finest tapestry for a room. The place was light with lights on small tables, and on a big desk under a reading-lamp were masses of papers and various volumes with paper slips in them. It was a workshop as well as a library.

Libraries and similar retreats are always a clue in Buchan thrillers. Sir Walter Bullivant's study—glimpsed in The Thirty-Nine Steps—was "a jolly room full of books and trophies and untidiness and comfort." Medina's, as Hannay later discovers, contains a large number of volumes dealing with the occult and the "forgotten knowledge" of the East.


In short order, the eminent Sir Richard Hannay finds himself assailed by a psychic attack strong enough to spirit a man's soul from his body. Then Sandy suddenly disappears, on some secret mission of his own, sending only occasional letters signed with pseudonyms (one of them is "Buchan," the name of a supposed Derby winner). Finally, Medina introduces Hannay to a great Indian sage named Kharama, who possesses the ability to control a person's will and, if so desired, create a psychic bondage so strong that it can never be broken.


Much else happens in The Three Hostages. At the darkest moment, Lady Hannay—once a trusted agent of Sir Walter Bullivant—must come out of retirement. Few people turn out to be quite what they seem. Adversaries end up stalking each other in the craggy Scottish wilds. It's all quite thrilling.


If you've never read John Buchan, The Thirty-Nine Steps is the logical starting point. It's available in several editions or as part of an omnibus, published by Godine, titled The Four Adventures of Richard Hannay. I'm personally fond of The Power-House, which both begins the Leithen cycle and adumbrates many of the elements of The Three Hostages, albeit in a leaner, less psychologically disturbing form. I've yet to read the early Prester John, a South African adventure now viewed as a children's classic in the mode of Treasure Island. A selection from Buchan's short fiction has been recently issued by Penguin as The Strange Adventures of Mr. Andrew Hawthorn and Other Stories, while the admirable Ash-Tree Press has gathered together his many supernatural tales in The Watcher by the Threshold.


There are, it must be admitted, lots of improbabilities in John Buchan's thrillers, and some of the novels—notably Greenmantle—tend to go on a bit too long. Moreover, none of the few women in the books rise much above stereotype, nor do the heroes quite possess the mythic charisma of a Sherlock Holmes or a James Bond. While Buchan's prose is always clear and efficient, it only sings when describing landscape or the outdoors. Nonetheless, these novels still reliably convey that most characteristic frisson of the modern thriller: the feeling of menace behind the everyday. For instilling this universal unease, one must thank Buchan's villains—some quietly unobtrusive, some virtually Napoleonic in the magnitude of their devilry. Behind the scenes, working diligently in their quiet libraries, they ensure that the world remains a deeply unsafe place.

About the Columnist
Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Washington Post Book World. He is the author of the memoir An Open Book and several collections of essays. His most recent book is Classics for Pleasure.

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