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.


Running through the south of France with John Welcome and Run for Cover (1958)

a really horrible cover, showing a most unpleasant man, surely not our hero?
a really horrible cover, showing a most unpleasant man, surely not our hero?

This podcast was written for a miniseries on Thrillers for Gentlemen, looking at the kind of thriller or spy novel that was masculine without being brutal, and that was written about men of a certain generation who understood the value of the gentleman’s club, and worked within its rules.

This time, I was exploring a writer I hadn’t heard of until a friendly 1950s thriller fiend alerted me to his existence. John Welcome is a forgotten star of the gentlemanly thriller. He wrote several novels, and also seems to have been the editor of collections of thriller short stories; in the sporting mode, and from the card-playing scene. He was a lawyer, and hunted a lot (on horseback, for foxes), and so, in his first novel, Run for Cover (1958), the hero, Richard Graham, is also a horsey man, who rides in races and in hunting, and plays cards almost professionally. It’s a rather self-conscious first novel, with some quite excruciating passages in which Graham practically shows the reader his library list as proof that he’s the right kind of chap. But once the story gets going, and the writer gets into his stride, this is a really entertaining thriller that begins in London, flies to Paris, and then gallops about in the south of France. It’s a definite scamper through the maquis, you can practically smell the rosemary crushed underfoot among the pine needles as Graham runs for cover, again and again and again. But it’s not a survivalist thriller at all, unlike a Household novel, or even a Bond. There are scramblings about on the outsides of buildings, but Graham, an ex-Commando and ex secret service agent, is terrified of rats, insists on having decent meals with drinks, and sleeps in hotels and pensions at night, rather than bunked up in the heather.

Another cover, with a hint of blonde sunkissed female interest
Another cover, with a hint of blonde sunkissed female interest

Here’s the plot: Graham gets into the London train, and finds himself sitting opposite an old friend (that’s a borrowing from John Buchan’s The Island of Sheep, for a start). The old friend is a publisher, and gives Graham a manuscript to read for his opinion. Graham is a bit surprised to see the name of the author, Rupert Rawle, because he saw Rawle shot and killed during the war. Moreover, he has particular reasons for wanting to know about Rawle, because Rawle tried to kill him, and also stole  his girl, which was a terrible betrayal, since Rawle was also his hero, and his best friend.  Graham takes the manuscript back to his London flat, leaves it there while he nips off to the bank and his club, but when he returns, it has gone, stolen through an opened window. And he hasn’t had a chance to read it. But he calls up his old secret service contacts to tell them that Rawle may be alive after all, and is told to leave it alone. Nothing daunted, he tries to alert a French former colleague, goes to Paris, and is told to leave it alone. Not one to take a hint, he gets onto Rawle’s trail, and is launched into a mystery that brings him back to Jacquie, the girl who dumped him, who also tells him to leave it alone. At this stage, it might be easy to give up reading the novel. Welcome writes cagily, constantly holding out hints of secrets that are influencing Graham’s actions, but the details of which we are not told. This is a bit maddening, and I’m still not sure what got me over that sticky first part, when the story and its importance need to be established, but when the writer seems to be doing more to drive the reader away by being secretive. Perhaps if you like secrets you won’t find this annoying at all, but I do prefer my plot on a plate before I start.

nicely complex third cover variant
nicely complex third cover variant

What kept me going were the characters, and how they lived, which is why I rate this novel very highly as a thriller for gentlemen. It is totally steeped in the gentleman’s way of life. Clubs: naturally, every man has one. One also has a London flat. Since Graham rides horses as his occupation, but is yet not a jockey, he obviously has private income. His flat’s living-room is packed with cups and trophies that he’s won at race-meetings. He takes the Sporting Times, The Daily World (which is a cover for The Daily Mail), and The Times. He employs a stockbroker. He’s not married because he’s still carrying a torch for Jacquie who ran off with Rawle, or whom Rawle bagged: it’s not clear which one carries the blame.

I like Graham, because he’s a competent and conscientious sort of chap, and he isn’t put off by people telling him to leave things alone. So naturally, as soon as he got on the plane to Paris, I was rooting for him. He also knows his way around Paris (a good sign), and is happy to drink champagne cocktails in the afternoon while waiting at a café thinking that somebody important might yet show up. And someone does. Trouble is, it’s the wrong someone, someone with a gun, and Graham is grabbed by the enemy. The enemy are thugs and a large foreign mastermind, and a gunman who cannot miss. We can tell that Jacquie is probably a bad ‘un because Graham mentions that her English is not quite perfect. (Bad sign for a gentleman’s girl.) Graham is beaten up severely, dumped at his hotel in a very bad state of repair, and told to go back to England. This he does, and then immediately flies back to the south of France to conduct his own investigation, and pursue Rawle to the death.

Graham is the kind of thriller hero I like, who fools the enemy by acting meek, and then does something unexpected, expertly carried out. He has pots of money with him, smuggled in and out of France in his pockets so he doesn’t have to get bogged down by Customs (this is definitely a thriller hero’s behaviour, since Dornford Yates’ crowd did this all the time, but it is not, strictly speaking, the conduct of a gentleman). Graham hires a car and zips off along the south coast of France, looking for something important and plot-relevant which is merely a McGuffin. The rest of the novel is concerned with him evading capture, escaping cleverly, deceiving and outwitting and taunting his captors, doing some damage to other people’s cars, shooting perfectly and casually, and displaying his perfect knowledge of the south of France’s highways and byways. Also of their hotels and cafes: it is extraordinary how many small villages he goes through where he is still on perfect best friend terms with the owners, no matter how many years have passed since the war and his presumable activities with the Résistance. Pretty nearly all of his meals are perfect. He hands out 5,000 franc notes for information, he gets hidden by innumerable allies, and he has a triumphant game of canasta that lets him nobble the scary gunman, against all the odds.

As in Moonraker, you do not need to understand the rules of canasta to survive the ten or more pages of what might otherwise be deeply tedious card-bore hell to understand that Graham is a great player. His playing is clever enough to make the bad man think Graham is hopeless. Acting stupid is a great skill, and it’s fun to watch it unfold. I’ve never played canasta, but even I could sense the points of tension and near-missery that we need to appreciate to enjoy this scene properly.

A gentleman has to be skilled in cards: this is a long-established fact from the eighteenth century, and it is so interesting that in the 1950s this still held true. Why cards? The demonstration of having a lot of money to lose at will? Graham loses no money in these games (though Bond wins a lot in his.) As an indication of skill at a game of chance, a pointless art? The ability to accept the responsibility of debts of honour? I do think it comes down to the money, but in Run for Cover there is also a strong sense that a man who can play cards well is likely to be a great winner of the game against life. He’s not a chancer, but a deliberate player of the odds, who knows how to accept good luck and bad luck, and play his cards as well as he can.

Graham does have a rather good bit of good luck in this novel, when he runs into another woman. His interactions with the not-quite perfectly accented Jacquie have left the reader feeling ruffled: why is he still mooning about after her, when she is so obviously a tart with no heart? So he’s on the run in the south of France, in a rather fetching disguise of a crew-cut, a pair of shorts, a sailor hat and a striped jersey. I laughed out loud when I read that: what a ludicrous caricature of a Frenchman’s disguise, but perhaps in the 1950s this had not yet reached caricature status. He’s had a night out sleeping in the woods, and he hears voices arguing. A couple are squabbling over a car that won’t start: the man (English) is clearly useless, since all he can do is make threats about their chauffeur who hadn’t serviced the car properly, whereas the woman is bored of this, and wants him to go and get help. So the woman is left in the car, alone in the woods, and Graham strolls over to see what’s up. He fixes the car, she realises he’s English and now knows instinctively what she’s dealing with. She offers him the use of her husband’s shaving kit, and then feeds him from the hamper in the back, and then, before we’ve can blink, they’re all over each other. At least she pulls the hood of the car up for a little privacy, but we are asked to assume that thriller heroes having wild outdoor sex with strange Englishwomen happened all the time in the south of France in the 1950s. No doubt they were up to date on how gentlemen should behave.

Dornford Yates’s Gale Warning

Gale WarningThis podcast was written for the miniseries ‘Thrillers for Gentlemen’. I was looking at the kind of thriller or spy novel that was masculine without being brutal, written about men of a certain generation who understood the value of the gentleman’s club, and worked within its rules. Fascinatingly, women were huge fans of Dornford Yates as well, and women’s magazines serialised his novels.

I couldn’t decide, originally, which one of Dornford Yates’s clubland thrillers of the 1930s to go for, so in the end I just took one from the shelf at random: Gale Warning, from 1939. The thing about Yates’s thrillers is that they are rather all the same. They have the same elements: the same impeccable handling of tension and plot twist, the same use of language, the same treatment of villains, and women, and heroes. But yet they are distinguishable. If I had told any one of the members of the Dornford Yates Yahoo group that this podcast was to be about the one where Plato put his hand down Audrey’s shirt and got in the way of a paperweight, they’d know exactly which one I meant. Each Yates thriller has its defining moments, and they are usually to do with the moment when something has changed the atmosphere, someone has acted in a way that has changed the plan.

Gale Warning (1939) begins with a classic Yates jolt to the stomach, a twist in the hero’s personal fortune that is designed to show you his character, and the kind of world he moves in, without doing anything so clumsy as ‘telling’. The narrator, John Bagot, lost his parents young, and thus also lost his home, since his father’s job as land agent came with the house. His best friend George offers him the job he was ‘bred’ to take up, as a land agent. Note: Yates uses the vocabulary of animal breeding in relation to the natural aristocracy that his characters represent. So if anyone in his books is described in terms of the studbook, you know that he expects you to approve of them, and to emulate their actions.

Dornford Yates
Dornford Yates

So John is offered a job as land agent by George, who is the Earl of St Omer, on his estate, which is called Peerless. Sorry, another note: Yates’ noble characters are often seriously noble, or ridiculously antique in their lineage. He invents titles with no discrimination at all, using the most outrageous nouns as proper names for estates and families. These are deviously manipulative in their emotional effect on the reader. If an estate is called ‘Peerless’ the reader knows immediately not only that it is the best of its kind, but also that it is inhabited by antique gentry who use antique vocabulary, indicating that they come of a very long line of descent, and that that automatically makes them good.

So John now has a job that he will take up in six months’ time. He is grateful, and determined to do the best for George and Peerless, so he decides to blow all his savings on a training course in the technical aspects of his profession. He can’t start the job any sooner because the agent currently in place has been given six months’ notice after being caught stealing. George won’t sack him immediately because that would wreck the man’s future: that’s the kind of man George is. The six months pass, and George sends John a telegram to invite him for dinner at Scott’s in London, to celebrate the start of their association. John arrives at the restaurant first, orders a newspaper, and sees on the front page the announcement of George’s death in a road accident en route to London. So now he has no job, he’s lost his best friend, and he only has 20 pounds left in the world because he’s spent his savings on the land agent training. Up, down, up, down. That’s how Yates constructs the first four pages of the first chapter.

John hears a man at the restaurant door asking if there is an alcove table, and gets up to vacate his own, since there is now no point in his staying. When he pauses at the restaurant door to button his coat against the wet night (actually it’s a ‘rough, wet night’: Yates uses metaphors like confetti to point up the messages of emotional melodrama), he is stopped by the man who had spoken, who knows exactly who he is, and who also knew George. This is Jonathan Mansel, Yates’ great thriller hero, and now that he is on the stage (another Yatesian trope: he does like to present his novels as populated by actors in a staged setting), the audience can settle down knowing exactly who is in charge, and enjoy the ride.

berryandMansel is Captain Mansel, so we know he is of impeccable bravery and has gentleman thriller qualities because he is an ex-officer. Any ex-officer in a Yates novel is automatically good, and a hero as well. It’s not a debateable point, and it can be quite reassuring to know these fixed points of certainty in the shady world of crooks and villainy without the law that Yates writes about. Jonathan, or Jonah, Mansel is also one of the Berry crowd, the strange, incestuously connected group of cousins who all live together in an infantilised world of devastatingly light humour (one day I will post the podcast that I wrote about them, in Adele & Co). Mansel is the hard man of that group, and called Jonah there, since they are all cousins together, but in the thrillers he is Mansel, as befits his commanding officer status. In the thrillers, Mansel is strong, stern and utterly in control. He’s also, technically, a criminal because his speciality is taking the law into his own hands. He keeps doing this, in book after book, because in Yates’ view, the police are useless, and vigilantism is the only way to deliver a good thriller. Mansel is friends with all the top policemen so he can call on them when he (very rarely) needs a safety net, but this is not always possible, and going ‘without’ the law is always his favourite option.

adele and coNow that Mansel has taken over the plot of Gale Warning, John can relax too. Naturally he is distraught about George, and is pathetically glad to be invited to join Mansel’s private vigilante scheme to kill the man who ordered George’s murder. It was a revenge attack for the foiling of a high-profile burglary of jewels that were stripped from the women’s necks at a private house party at which Royal personages were present. Here again we have some favourite Yatesian moments. Jewels are always more attractive than money as treasure, because money smacks of trade (not conducive for a gentleman), and jewels are shiny. Jewels are also usually around the naked body parts of women, and Yates takes enormous, lingering pleasure in ensuring that we can picture the scenes in which jewels are stripped (and they would be ‘stripped’, wouldn’t they?) from such arms or necks, because the threatened violation of women in a Yates novel is the one thing that will ensure the rapid and summary death of any villain, especially if Mansel is involved. Murders along these lines happen quite often in Yates’ thrillers. In Gale Warning the scene where the villain actually lays his hand on the woman’s skin is described in full to the reader: Yates wants us to feel pleasurably excited and also outraged. He had strong views about the rightful ownership and possession of women in his own life as well as in his fiction: he would not have been a pleasant man to know, I feel.

So George, Mansel and Mansel’s great friend and fellow thriller hero Richard Chandos, foiled this jewel robbery, and its organiser arranged for George’s murder in revenge, telling Mansel that he and Chandos were going to be next. So naturally Mansel takes the offensive, and offers John the job of helping avenge George. Enter another player: George’s fiancée, Lady Audrey Nuneham. (Pause for another note: Audrey is the daughter of a duke or earl, since she uses her title with her first name. This makes her of the correct rank to marry an Earl, in Yates’s eyes, though any lady could marry a peer.) Audrey is a classic high-spirited, proud and sharp-tongued Yates heroine, who routinely says vicious things to the man she will eventually marry. She will be humbled by his devotion, and his ability to take all her tongue-lashing meekly, and she will be described in animal terms. She will be schooled, and brought to heel, in the most humiliatingly subservient, abased vocabulary, because Yates does enjoy giving out a good dose of abasement. His characters exist to glory in their hierarchies of value in relation to each other. They worship each other’s good qualities and praise each other in simple, soldierly steady-eyed English. Sometimes it’s all too much, too baroque and too selfless.

a late Dornford Yates novel from the 1950s, whose title tells you all you need to know about his views of the lower classes
a late Dornford Yates novel from the 1950s, whose title tells you all you need to know about his views of the lower classes

Gale Warning continues to relate the hunting down of the first link in the chain of people who will lead Mansel & Co to Barrabbas, the criminal mastermind behind all the nastiness. We have some excellent episodes tracking the first man down in the City of London (some classic interwar City of London crime and trailing scenes here), and then a very long and seriously iconic episode of Yates writing about cars, and mapping, and navigation in northern France. We have the tense moments of closing in the prey, the recce, the tests of endurance, the stomach-jolting shock of surprise, aeons of high tension, the attack, and then the careful wiping away of the blood. It is marvellous stuff, nail-biting, and gentlemanly to the core. Also vicious, high-handed, chauvinist, rule-bound, and arrogant. It all depends how much you can take at one sitting.