John Buchan and The Power-House

Buchan remarketed in the 1960s as a thriller author

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.

buchan-5With 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?

buchan-2With 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.

buchan-3So 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.

one of the best modern covers, from the French Editions de Londres

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.


On recording for the BBC

'The Buchan Tradition', BBC Radio 4, 16 April 2015
‘The Buchan Tradition’, BBC Radio 4, 16 April 2015

I was on the BBC yesterday, talking about John Buchan in a half-hour programme you can still hear on the BBC’s iPlayer, here. Obviously it’s not just me: Buchan’s grandchildren Ursula Buchan and James Buchan (both authors), and the esteemed novelist William Boyd contribute most of the snippets of interview, unpicking the detail on why Buchan is still such a readable writer. I was in there as a technical expert. Nick Rankin, the link man and narrator, is also an author: the programme was all about writers talking about how words work, one hundred years later.

We recorded my interview in my office in the Bodleian’s Weston Library in Oxford, still being renovated for its March reopening earlier this year. Sadly, that office is no longer mine, but long life and good writing to all those who sail after me in the beautiful glass-walled cubicles in the Visiting Scholars’ Centre. It’s a very nicely-appointed room, with oak veneer on every edge and cupboard: my visiting uncle, a retired architect, told me it was the BEST veneer, and he was pretty impressed by the quality of the moulded concrete in the stairwell too. The blown-air heating system was a little too good at transmitting the joyous cries of builders still banging on pipes, so I hoped to catch a lunch-break to do the recording.

The three of us (Dan the producer held the mic and recording machine) sat knee to knee in a huddle, and Nick asked me questions for an hour. It was like the reverse of a PhD viva: instead of being expected to show my skill in using big words and hard concepts, I needed to strip down my thinking into BBC-sized chunks (actually, not hard to do) and string them into earnest, heart-felt bites of common sense. I could see from the chaps’ expressions when I was straying too far from the wave-length they wanted, so we’d stop, have a think, and do it again. The best bits came from conversation, when Nick abandoned the script and started being a journalist, asking proper questions, not just requests for platitudes that they hoped might be edited into something bigger. The best radio comes from unexpected interactions, when truth is jolted out of sleep, and you get the real opinion, the real ideas that lurk unexpressed because no-one has asked that question before.

The last time I did a programme for the BBC was in 2013, speaking into a fat mic in the Brussels studio to three men in the London studio, about John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps. It could have gone awkwardly, speaking into the void (actually, a fine view of the Berlaymont Building at the heart of the European Union) and trying to pick up the visual codes of conversation to make the interview sound like we were all in there together. But, I knew the two other interviewees (and they knew my little ways), and the interviewer was tremendous at corralling we three sheep into a coherent debate.

The lovely thing about the Oxford interview was that, far too often, talking about Buchan means talking about The Thirty-Nine Steps, and anti-Semitism, and then the conversation stops. It is so rare to have a public talk with someone who knows other books by Buchan, and can talk about the other issues. It’s like being asked by a properly appreciative visitor to bring all my toys out to play, not just the ones I’ve played with too often. I wasn’t doing Buchan research at the time of the interview, so the top part of my mind was not properly primed with relevant Buchanalia, it was in another universe entirely. So what Dan recorded were the core beliefs, the things I’ve tested and thought about for a very long time. What got used in the programme was only about 10% of what they took, and I’m glad they kept in the bit where I launch into feminist snorting about Buchan’s love scenes.


John Buchan’s The Three Hostages

Three HostagesThis podcast script was written for a miniseries on Thrillers for Gentlemen. I was looking at the thriller or spy novel that was masculine without being brutal; written about, and possibly also for, men of a certain generation who understood the ethos of the gentleman’s club, and worked within its rules. I’m not saying that way of life would work nowadays, but for its time, these standards are very attractive. These thrillers are tough, but with good manners. I’ll be posting the companion podcasts in future weeks, on Dornford Yates, Geoffrey Household, John Welcome and Ian Fleming.

I’ve been writing about John Buchan since the 1980s. I started reading Buchan as a schoolgirl, and started researching him before I took my first degree, and was given my PhD for my thesis on his fiction. I edited the John Buchan Journal for eleven years, and I’ve published – among many other things –  three books on his writing. I’ll be wittering on about him on a Radio 4 programme sometime in summer 2015 (I was on a Radio 3 programme about him in 2014), and I’ll be giving the Caledonian Club lecture on his writing on September 2015.  I do try to wean myself off researching him, but it’s hard. Buchan’s writing is so rich, intriguing and entertaining, I think I’ll never stop working on him.

Buchan is best known as being the creator of Richard Hannay in The Thirty-Nine Steps. The Three Hostages is his fourth Hannay novel, in which the now rather stuffy and middle-aged Sir Richard encounters a modern night club and an Indian guru at Claridges on his quest to rescue three innocent hostages from a ruthless and unknown megalomaniac.

greenmantleThe year is 1923, and Hannay is just beginning to relax. He’s come a long way from being a beat-up engineer from South Africa. Only a few weeks after his arrival in Britain in 1914, he was on the run, wanted by the police for a murder he did not commit, and by a secret gang of spies for a little black book he’d taken off the body of the man they murdered, and left in his flat. Naturally, for he is super-resourceful and a terrific getter-out of trouble, Hannay solves the mystery of the thirty-nine steps, and saves his neck. His next adventure was a year or two later, in the First World War, where he led a daring mission to find out what the Germans were planning in Constantinople, and to stop it. That was in the novel Greenmantle. A year or two after that, in Mr Standfast, Hannay was solving another mystery for the War Office, chasing German spies up and down Scotland and into Switzerland, changing disguise roughly every five pages, and finding the girl of his dreams as well.

actor David Robb as Hannay, in the 2010 BBC radio version of The Three Hostages
actor David Robb as Hannay, in the 2010 BBC radio version of The Three Hostages

Now its peacetime, and he has a knighthood, a wife, a son, and a country estate. He’s been walking around the woods and fields, checking up on his land, and planning the alterations that need doing before the summer. It’s spring, and all is at peace. Except, that, of course, the world is not at peace. The war may have ended, but mysterious international masterminds who have emerged from the war madder, and badder, than before, are planning to unleash economic chaos onto a war-torn Europe. To keep the authorities off their backs, they’ve taken hostages: a young man, a young woman, and a little boy. These three will be killed unless the gang is left alone, and naturally this can’t be allowed to happen. Hannay has become a bit of a fixer for the government and the police, so his task for this novel is to find the hostages against a ticking clock. He has no idea where to start.

This is a novel set in the heart of 1920s urban civilisation. Very little of the novel’s action happens in the countryside, except for the gripping ending on crags in the Scottish Highlands. I think that was only put in because Buchan wanted a man-hunt to end the novel. In this novel we explore areas of the city with Hannay, as he roams London’s seedy underbelly looking for clues in a landscape he doesn’t really understand: places like Gospel Oak and Fitzrovia, which are now very respectable and rather smart places to live, but in the 1920s were really pretty run-down, haunts of the disaffected and home to those struggling not to drift down any further in the social scale.

borrowed from the Jazz Age Club site
borrowed from the Jazz Age Club site

Buchan creates an atmosphere of London’s sad decay, and war-damaged poverty. In the nightclub scenes, he surpasses himself. This place is so fashionable that it’s positively shabby. Hannay is taken there by Archie, his bright young friend who can’t dance any more due to a war wound, but wants to see the latest fashions and to see again where the beautiful people dance. They’re a bit fish out of water, these pillars of the establishment, as they sit sipping overpriced liqueurs in their dinner jackets, watching bored-looking people jigging around on a tiny dancefloor. Archie spots only one dancer really worth watching, but Hannay is more concerned about her minder, a tough-looking customer whom he recognises, because he’d seen this man only the day before as the butler in the house of a very important and influential politician. Other people also wander about the book in disguise. There’s the Indian guru, who comes to Claridges to hold court, to receive his acolytes, and to grant a private audience with a very important man, which Hannay witnesses, horrified at the evil he can sense seeping out from the guru’s soul. When Hannay sees this guru again, he tries to attack him, but is brought up short when the guru tosses his turban back as a deflecting weapon, and is revealed as … well, I won’t tell you. You’ll have to read the book yourself.

Hannay flies to Norway to track down another hostage, and sees not one but two people he really did not expect to encounter. There’s a man whom he last saw in a Harley St consulting room, giving Hannay medical advice. There’s also a man whom Hannay last saw in Constantinople during the war, a German whom Hannay rather liked, and now finds that he can trust implicitly. This is rather hopeful, that only five years after the end of the war, Buchan can write comfortably about making friends with a former enemy, and trust in the inherent goodness of people.

Hannay’s first ally is his own country neighbour Dr Greenslade, who gives him the first solution to the clues that the criminal mastermind is scattering about. But Greenslade, after this first strong showing, is oddly kept in the background for the rest of the novel. Hannay has another great ally, Sandy Arbuthnot from Greenmantle, aristocrat, clubman, adventurer and scholar. He too is a wasted character in this novel because he spends most of his time off-stage, hunting down references in the Bibliotheque Nationale and avoiding assassination. It’s as if Buchan’s roster of characters was so rich, he could afford to throw inventions capable of carrying a whole novel into a one-chapter walk-one role. Would that all novelists were so bountiful in their invention.

the well-known Australian cake, the Lamington, probably unknown to Buchan
the well-known Australian cake, the Lamington, probably unknown to Buchan

Hannay’s most important ally is his own wife, Lady Hannay, formerly Mary Lamington of the secret service, and one of the first women secret agents of the 1920s. And she’s a wasted character as well, after The Three Hostages is finished, because, after a tremendous showing in Mr Standfast, and this last burst of professional expertise in The Three Hostages, she is reduced to domestic roles for the remaining Hannay novels; feeding people tea, and being a hostess. She could have been so good, a marvellous role model for women hoping to enter the secret services, for women willing and able to leave Foreign Office desks for a life of subterfuge and disguise. But, of course, all that will not wash. Mary Lamington was created 50 years too early. She would have been a fascinating handler for Modesty Blaise (imagine that: all-female secret service agents in the 1960s), and she would have skewered James Bond with a single glance. She was born to circulate in high society as a secret agent (Lady Penelope!), but Buchan marries her off to the stuffiest traditionalist clubman in his books, and leaves her in country isolation.

At least she gets a terrific final show. In The Three Hostages, Mary makes Hannay take the job on by using emotional blackmail, and she rescues two of the three hostages herself. She play-acts as a foolish and silly mother to prevent the villain even noticing her, and she carefully does not let her husband know what she is doing, because if he did know he would only stop her. Hannay, as a hearty ex-soldier and a fine English gentleman, has rather, shall we say, traditional views about women. I feel sure that Mary Hannay would have used her vote in the 1919 general election. She simply ignores what Hannay might say, returns to her professional training, and just gets the job done.

There is much vigorous masculinity in this novel: the all-male lunches, clubs and dinners; the female-free household of the evil mastermind; the rugged 30-mile walks that Dr Greenslade takes for relaxation; and the classic Buchan Highland stalking and shooting episode that ends the novel. Two of the hostages have undergone demasculinisation, which Hannay and Mary have to try to reverse, and the girl hostage is rescued by her very masculine fiancé, which helps soothe his injured pride. But no-one’s masculinity is more secure than Hannay’s, since he simply never thinks he can be anything other than what he is, unlike the nervy and sensitive Sandy Arbuthnot, or the unexpectedly diffident Archie Roylance, anxious about women now he has a nasty limp from the war. Hannay is a tough old buffalo, and cares not two hoots, especially now that he is married and the father of a son.

Do read this novel: it’s packed with good things, and is wonderful entertainment. I know from experience that even if The Three Hostages is one of only three novels that you have on a two-month archaeological dig, pre-internet and far away from any other sources of reading, it will keep you sane.