Sunday, October 11, 2015

Buchan again

John Buchan (1875-1940) wrote, among much else, some of the best "thrillers." I like almost all of them. There are problems, among which are some ethnic stereotypes unfortunately not untypical of the time of authorship. Gertrude Himmelfarb addressed those issues to my satisfaction in an essay printed in Encounter (pdf) in 1960.

Buchan's granddaughter (and biographer) writes about "The many lives of John Buchan," and particularly his most famous book, in the current Spectator:
.... As well as journalist and barrister, he was at various times colonial administrator, head of wartime propaganda, member of Parliament, novelist, poet, historian, public thinker and viceroy. But his name has been made, seemingly for all eternity, by a short spy thriller which he wrote in a few weeks for his own amusement.

In August 1914 Buchan took a family holiday in Broadstairs, Kent; a duo-denal ulcer was playing up badly and his doctor recommended rest. There he began his second ‘shocker’ (the first was The Power House), finishing it when ordered to bed again in December. The book’s dedication, to his friend and business partner, Tommy Nelson, defines the ‘shocker’ as a ‘romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible’, which, taking in all the coincidences as well as the explosive incident with the lentonite, seems about right. The novel was serialised in Blackwood’s Magazine between July and September 1915, and appeared in book form in October, when it was an immediate critical and commercial success, selling 25,000 copies in the first six weeks. ....

The tense, fast-moving, first-person narrative contains surprisingly interesting characterisations for an adventure story, not to mention deft and vivid descriptions of landscape and weather, for which Buchan was to become renowned. It has all his hallmarks of brevity, clarity, keen observation and wry humour. The South African Hannay irritates some readers by his heartiness, robust colonial utterances and emphasis on getting a job done, but we shouldn’t forget he was conceived in wartime. I like his resourcefulness, sensitivity to atmosphere and cheerful courage. Although at least partly modelled on General Sir Edmund Ironside, Hannay is, in many ways, the average man who knows his limitations, and is thus someone with whom readers can readily identify. The book was very popular with soldiers in the trenches.

In 1934, Alfred Hitchcock bought the option to film the book from Buchan, by now a very well-known writer and politician. The 39 Steps, possibly the first ‘man-on-the-run’ thriller ever filmed, made Hitchcock famous in America for the first time when it came out in 1935. Much of the plot was changed to accommodate a love interest and to reflect the different international situation, 20 years on from 1915. Hannay, played by Robert Donat, acquires a beautiful but reluctant companion, Pamela (Madeleine Carroll). The scene where they have to share a room in a Scottish inn and she removes her stocking, while handcuffed to him, gives off an erotic spark even now. An amused Buchan told Hitchcock at the premiere that the film was a great improvement on the book; only my loyal granny could never be reconciled to Hitchcock changing the story.

.... We shall never know whether the book would have remained in print continuously for a century without the film industry promoting it so assiduously. What is plain is that its prominence has succeeded in obscuring many of the other things for which John Buchan deserves to be remembered. [more]
Buchan is always a good read and The Thirty-Nine Steps is a good place to start, but he wrote even better books of which the most relevant today is probably Greenmantle, another Hannay story.

Other posts about Buchan or his books on this site.