I‘ve been working on John Buchan, on and off, for about thirty years. After the first ten years I went a bit stale. I was bored with his most famous character, Richard Hannay, and with The Thirty-Nine Steps, his most famous novel. I was even more bored of people not being interested in reading anything else written by Buchan. The Thirty-Nine Steps is the one novel that people link to Buchan. If they were educated in Scotland they probably know about some of his other novels, and about Buchan as a historian and a biographer as well as a politician. Historians and conspiracy theorists will also know about Buchan the Director of Information for the British government in the First World War. Some Canadians will remember that Buchan was their Governor-General, Lord Tweedsmuir, when they entered the Second World War. Despite all this, when people think of Richard Hannay and The Thirty-Nine Steps, they see Robert Donat and the 1935 Hitchcock film, which has eaten the book alive.
So, when I read Buchan for pleasure, I don’t read Hannay: I read Leithen. Buchan’s other great protagonist-narrator Edward Leithen is a hard-working lawyer and politician who first appeared in Buchan’s tryout for The Thirty-Nine Steps, The Powerhouse (1913). He is not a showy hero, but is, surprisingly, Buchan’s most frequently occurring character. Buchan used Hannay to unlock the impasses when nation was squabbling with nation, whereas Leithen was Buchan’s way of exploring human nature, and the resilience of the human spirit. He is an earnest voice of reason, a substitute for the ordinary man, and takes us into extraordinary adventures, quite often involving questions of religious faith or other introspective subjects. He has nothing to do with the secret services, nor does he take orders from the Foreign Office or the police: he is an independent adventurer. He narrates The Gap in the Curtain, one of Buchan’s forays in speculative fiction, in which Leithen is always our guide. Hannay would be no good at this, since he has the imagination of a haddock, but Leithen – all sensitivity and insight – is ideal at narrating adventures in the fourth dimension or seeing into the future. Buchan doesn’t get enough credit for writing in the weird: he may not invent tentacled monsters underground or aliens from Mars, but he is superb at describing what happens when the mind or imagination are turned inside out. He sets his excursions into weirdness in his alternative political universe, where he shows off his enjoyment of politics as a game of tactics in a society that is so different now from our own. We have to decode its mysteries, with the characters as a human puzzle.
Buchan also puts Leithen in more familiar Buchanesque settings, up in the hills looking for animals to kill. John Macnab (1925) is much loved by British huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ types because it is a celebration of huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ for sport. In one of the most enthralling passages, one of the four protagonists is creeping along in an ice-cold stream, on all fours, with his nose in the water, up a rough hillside, pulling his rifle along the bank to keep it dry, all in order to shoot a stag. Most of us would have to be paid good money, I think, to be persuaded to do this, but there is pleasure to be gained from reading about someone else doing it, because no-one could do it so well as a fictional hero who wears the right kind of tweed.
For those of us who don’t care to read about killing animals, the pleasures of John Macnab come from the thrill factor: three bored men with important positions in the world are advised to do something dangerous that will risk their positions in life. This is to cure them of a dissatisfaction with their lives that is, back in the real world, an insult to those not in their privileged positions. So they form a syndicate, call themselves John Macnab, and send a letter to the owners of three Highland estates announcing that between certain dates they propose to steal a salmon or a stag from their land. The novel tells how the challenges were carried out, and it is a joy to read, a total pleasure in every way. The story is suffused with Scottishness, in language and setting. It may not be hardcore radical Scots fiction, but it is a fine read: funny, down to earth, and profoundly satisfying.
In both novels, Leithen is a great principal character. He narrates The Gap in the Curtain, but is narrated in the third person in John Macnab, so we see him both inside and out. He overdoes things, frequently, and in The Gap in the Curtain he is practically dead on his feet from overwork. In John Macnab he is just as vulnerable, but he gets his groove back by some very skilful salmon poaching. In The Gap in the Curtain Leithen’s concerns are low-key, being about the lives of people, rather than the fate of governments. This small-scale, human scale of the Leithen stories makes him a very attractive character, for all his professional importance.
The episodic nature of both novels makes them both short story collections in miniature. Buchan uses the episodes as a showcase for virtuoso storytelling, where man (and it is usually, but not always man) has to work hard against nature. John Macnab has three poachers – Leithen, John and Charles – and their hapless friend Archie in whose shooting lodge they are hiding, so we have four separate storylines to follow. Leithen gets his salmon in one of the most beautiful pieces of fishing prose that Buchan ever wrote, but he is also part of a ludicrous episode where he disguises himself as a vulgar English tourist to avoid suspicion. He then gets captured by the ghillies and is locked up in the coal cellar, and has to pretend to be a tramp to get away from the lady of the house before she recognises one of the most famous public figures of her day.
The speculation in The Gap in the Curtain is more fantastical. Sally is having a weekend party at her country house, and has invited a famous professor who has invented a way of seeing into the future, and wants to try this out on other people. So a selection of the guests go through practice exercises and training, and finally they see into the future. They see a brief glimpse of the front page of The Times, a year ahead, and – most importantly – see something that directly concerns them or their professional lives. The banality of seeing a newspaper front page is also realism: we all know (or Buchan’s original readers would know) what The Times looks like. By blending this normal experience with the supernatural experience of seeing into the future, and knowing that it is the future, Buchan makes us accept the whole thing without thinking too much about it. Disbelief is suspended so we can find out what happens next. A stockbroker chases all over the Near East and southern Africa to buy the crucial shares in a mining concern that only he knows will be big in a year’s time. A politician has to juggle his party affiliations carefully to end up on the right side of the man who he knows will be Prime Minister in a year’s time. A young man about town finds his cherished hobby of book collecting hijacked by a masterful woman, who wants to turn his gentle hobby into heritage culture.
The leading characters in both novels are important people in a government and Establishment that doesn’t exist. Since Buchan was also a member of these social groups, he is writing from life, and makes a plausible speculative universe for us. Plausibility is important, because we need to believe in their position in the world to feel the necessary thrill and fear as they go through socially risky situations. Plausibility is something Buchan was extremely good at, at convincing the reader of totally invented facts. Watching him do this, experiencing the suspension of disbelief, is to observe a master craftsman at work. Blending the fantasy with the real was part of the trick: the alternative-universe politicians still have to address political meetings, attend dinner parties given by admiring local inhabitants, and be public figures on display when they would much rather be fishing. The influence of the First World War is also relevant: Buchan used the War as a measure of moral quality for his male characters. Anyone who had fought in the war was on the side of right and justice, so a character formerly portrayed as a thug is suddenly redeemed when he is recognised as a former soldier: from thenceforth he can do no wrong. Contrariwise, a rich and influential businessman is condemned, morally, because he has made money out of the war and did not fight himself. Buchan blends the social effects of war into his fantasy as realism, so we can swallow the fantastical surroundings happily.
With Leithen as the voice of reason and persuasive realism, Buchan can take us further into stories of the weird than he could with a Hannay adventure. Hannay’s one brush with the supernatural comes in a short story from his youth in the South African bush, ‘The Green Wildebeest’, in which his young Boer companion boorishly destroys a site of ritual significance, as the archaeologists say. Hannay didn’t see what happened, was polite to the local priest, but all he can do is narrate the horrible events that happen to the perpetrator. Leithen gets deeper into supernatural events because he feels and responds more deeply. In The Powerhouse he has the unnerving experience of feeling the buildings and streets of London itself trying to capture him. In The Dancing Floor he watches a Greek village return to paganism and summon up gods. In ‘Ho! The Merry Masons’ Leithen is nearly, literally, frightened to death in a haunted bedroom. This is Buchan’s most Lovecraftian short story, which had been lost for half a century until I rediscovered it by detective work in the old British library catalogue. Buchan’s last novel, Sick Heart River, is also Leithen’s last, since he dies in it, and somehow saves a whole tribe of First Nation people from dying through a strange shamanistic willpower. At the end, Leithen the speculative hero becomes a figure of the fantastic himself.