The novel of 1913 that I’m resurrecting from the Really Like This Book podcast scripts is the first modern thriller, The Power-House by John Buchan. This is often overlooked because of its far more famous younger brother, The Thirty-Nine Steps, which was published two years later in 1915. When Buchan wrote The Power-House, he was still hoping for literary fame. He’d been a writer for nearly twenty years, but his life kept distracting him as he kept looking for the career in intellectual public service that he felt he was destined for, and for which he had been training himself. Politics was getting him nowhere (the 1911 general election, for which he had been groomed as a prospective parliamentary candidate, didn’t happen). He’d tried being a colonial civil servant in South Africa, but didn’t find a new post when his first one ended. He tried journalism, and wrote a great many excellent book reviews and opinion pieces, but only rose to become temporary deputy editor of The Spectator. He had trained as a barrister, but this didn’t seem to draw him in: perhaps the law was too dry and inward-looking, and simply not concerned enough with words as literature.
With hindsight, it is perfectly obvious that Buchan was a born writer. What is not so obvious is that, unlike many of his peers, he ignored the tug of words for over fifteen years before being able to write them full-time. Other novelists got their heads down and did this: it was their job. Buchan tended to write his fiction in the evenings of his day job, and perhaps this less intense application showed in the time it took for him to finally get it together and write the novel that the times, and the public wanted. The market and his developing writing style finally came together in the first months of the First World War and burst upon the waiting world in 1915. The Thirty-Nine Steps really was a breakthrough for him, a masterpiece in many ways. What is interesting about the over-shadowed The Power-House was that it was the last novel but one before The Thirty-Nine Steps, and contains many of the elements that made The Thirty-Nine Steps a winner.
It was written while Buchan had been steadily settling into a new career as the literary advisor for Thomas Nelson, a Scottish publisher. He was their talent spotter and editor, and an expert negotiator, but he was increasingly drawn to writing books for them himself. It’s as if he couldn’t stop himself. Buchan had to read a lot of current popular fiction and new novels, to see if they would suit Nelson’s own reprint series, and then handle the negotiations between authors and agents. He couldn’t have thought up a better way to survey the market for fiction if he’d tried. He even knew exactly how to pitch and market his own books: he did this very well with his own books that he wrote for Nelson’s: Prester John in 1910, and the biographies of Montrose and Sir Walter Ralegh a few years later. But with The Power-House, Buchan struck out on his own, and gave the novel (really a novella) to a different publisher, William Blackwood, for publication in Blackwood’s Magazine. Why did he do this?
With Nelson’s he had a captive publisher he could persuade to give him good terms, and the novel was short enough not to matter too much if it failed, but Buchan was clearly after more than in-house publishing comfort. He wanted independent fame (and who can blame him?) Blackwood’s Magazine was also a lot more prestigious than Thomas Nelson, which was more known for its Christian and children’s lists. Nelson’s was not a natural home for a best-seller, and Buchan really wanted this. Getting his novel in a magazine for its first publication was also very good business. He’d be paid for that publication, and be paid again if any US magazine wanted to do the same (though, as it happened, no other magazine did reprint The Power-House). He undoubtedly expected that afterwards there would be book publication royalties, but for The Power-House these took their time, because Blackwood didn’t do anything with the story until after The Thirty-Nine Steps had had a massive success, and so The Power-House didn’t appear as a book until 1916. This must have been galling, because it proved, once again, that as a novelist Buchan was not considered (by the prestigious but stuffy and old-fashioned House of Blackwood) to be worth much investment. What Buchan needed was a real hit, and a new publisher, and The Power-House did not give him these. After The Thirty-Nine Steps was a smash success for William Blackwood, despite their almost complete lack of advertising or publicity, Buchan’s next novel went to Hodder & Stoughton, with whom he stayed for the rest of his life.
So why was The Power-House not the kind of book that Blackwood preferred to invest in? It was not steady, reliable, Victorian or safe. It did not rehash Imperial adventures and colonial values. In fact, it did the opposite. A dastardly spy plot is discovered, and an innocent man is being hunted by wicked foreign conspirators in the exotic and very nineteenth-century adventure playground of the Victorians, Bokhara and the Pamirs. But the central joke behind the novel is that all this conventional drama happens off-stage, while the really thrilling events happen in London, on the narrator’s own doorstep. With The Power-House Buchan invented the thriller that could happen to any one of us. The novel’s narrator, Edward Leithen, is a barrister and an MP, he has easy relations with the police and Embassy staff, he has a chauffeur (this was the early period of driving, when a car routinely needed a driver, because the owner didn’t know how to drive), but for all of this, Edward Leithen is One of Us, an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation.
So the hunted man disappears off to the Russian borderlands to hide from someone or something mysterious, and Leithen is left in London wondering what can be done to help. Small coincidences keep accumulating. Leithen keeps coming across connections between the man who has had to vanish, and a house in south London, a collector of Wedgwood china, his horrible butler, an old trade union embezzlement scandal, and some odd Russian names. He knows they’re connected, but doesn’t find the key until one weekend when he has a car accident in the countryside, and is offered hospitality for the night at a gentleman’s house nearby. As we will find in pretty much all of Buchan’s novels, another coincidence appears, because the gentleman is revealed as the connecting link between all the clues. He is Mr Lumley, the super-intelligent leader of a shadowy international criminal gang who are plotting to bring down western civilisation. The rest of the novel is devoted to the excitement of Leithen’s attempts to stop Lumley, and to stop being assassinated himself.
And this is where Buchan really makes thriller writing new. Edgar Wallace had published a fair few London-based thrillers before The Power-House, but Wallace was ponderous, slangy, sensational, cheap and rather too swiftly dashed off (there‘s a great early 20th-century cartoon in which a bookstall owner offers the ‘midday Wallace’ to a perplexed customer). Buchan was a seriously good classicist, a very well-read son of the manse, and a good historian. He wrote this thriller with the example of Wallace before him, but wearing his learning lightly. He did not sacrifice the breathtaking chases and dramas in tight spots to sloppy plotting or laughable dialogue: he just wrote well, and believably, and fast. Speed is Buchan’s thing: his novels zip along just as his heroes do, and he pares the action down to the essential details which also remain completely memorable.
When Leithen is pursued by persons unknown who are determined to nobble him, he has to find a safe way through crowded London streets. Never have building sites on Oxford Street seemed so dangerous. Never has going to a seedy little restaurant in the East End seemed so worrying. Leithen also has a lot of friends who help him out, and by this London seems less of a huge anonymous city, but a familiar neighbourhood. Because he has friends in high places and low, we accompany him to rare and unusual places throughout the whole adventure.
Re-reading the novel in 1913, preparing to teach it, some things jumped out at me that I hadn’t noticed before. The anti-German spy fever was at its height at this time, and Buchan does slip in references to a German spy being caught in England; as if this were a commonplace (when in fact no such creatures existed). The Russian angle is also interesting: I don’t know what the Comintern was up to in 1913, or the British-based Socialists, but it’s interesting that Buchan makes one of the chief villains a former union executive. Admittedly he did the union wrong and stole all their money, but there is a suggestion that a trade union would naturally attract that kind of evil swine. Buchan was a Conservative, which shows in the central theme of the novel: that the border between civilisation and anarchy is very thin, and could be broken by the smallest events. Civilisation, in Buchan’s view, was inherently antithetical to all that the forces of the Left, which included anarchy, and trade unions, stood for. He was certainly right that civilisation was about to be broken up pretty thoroughly, only twelve months later, but the threat wouldn’t come from the Left, but from the rotting corpse of ninetenth-century Imperialism.