Of spies in an age of innocence
It's unfair maybe, but it's the way it goes. Writers who blaze trails that many other writers follow are often later neglected.
John Buchan was that sort of writer. Along with Erskine Childers (The Riddle of the Sands, 1903), he was among the creators of the espionage novel. Before them, agents had existed as characters in literary novels as characters (see Conrad's works, for example). Buchan was one of the founders of the espionage thriller, with the spy chase at the centre of the narrative. But since then he has been surpassed by Eric Ambler (The Mask of Dimitrios, 1939), Graham Greene (The Third Man, 1939), Ian Fleming (the James Bond books), John le Carré (The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, 1963) and dozens of more recent thriller writers.
There's a progression in this genre that makes older works seem naïve, old-fashioned. A typical early story features an innocent civilian who gets caught up in international intrigue and uses his native smarts to outwit the villains, usually anarchists or nefarious agents in the pay of foreign powers. In later works, these plucky characters give way to more sophisticated fellows, and eventually to professionals in the official intelligence services. A cynicism about morality in espionage has come to dominate and a common plot now involves anti-hero agents questioning whom they can trust—and whether they are working for good at all.
So when we look back on John Buchan's novels, they seem somewhat corny (just as today's thrillers are bound to seem unreal to future readers.) Only one of the novels from his long list of publications is still regularly read these days—and not as much as several decades ago when it used to be on school reading lists.
But if you can put aside your jaded modern attitudes, some of his works can still be quite diverting. They give you a picture of a simpler time—simpler from a certain class and national perspective—while revealing unintentionally the dark fears and prejudices below the blithe surface. They also show you the roots of the contemporary thriller: the galloping plot, the quickly sketched characters, the gradually complicated storyline, the unravelling from unawareness to shocking revelations to acceptance to doubts to new shocking revelations. And they can still grab and hold onto your attention. They're still page turners.
Buchan was born in Perth, son of a Free Church of Scotland minister. He was raised and educated in Scotland until attending Oxford. As a stand-out student he published five books, mainly nonfiction but including the novel Sir Quixote of the Moors (1895). He later became a barrister and a secretary to the High Commissioner of South Africa, out of which experience came his first popular novel, Prestor John (1910).
He returned to England and while sick in bed during the first months of the First World War he composed his most enduring novel, The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915). The story with its fast-moving plot and thrilling suspense was a hit and has been made into a film several times, most notably by Alfred Hitchcock in 1935. It's also been a successful play, staged on both sides of the Atlantic repeatedly and most recently on Broadway about a century after the novel was first published.
The books led to four more novels in the series, three of them with the same stalwart hero, Richard Hannay: Greenmantle (1916), Mr Standfast (1919), The Three Hostages (1924) and The Island of Sheep (also called Man from the Norlands, 1936).
Buchan was a Conservative Member of Parliament from 1927 to 1935 at which time he was created the First Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsfield and named Governor General of Canada, a position in which he served until his death.
Among his other writing—including history, biographies, stories and political essays—Buchan produced two other popular adventure series. Dickson McCunn is a retired Glasgow grocer caught up in intrigue in Huntingtower (1922), Castle Gay (1930) and The House of the Four Winds (1935).
Lawyer Edward Leithen is featured in The Power-House (1916), John MacNab (1925), The Gap in the Curtain (1932) and Sick Heart River (also known as Mountain Meadow, 1941)—a series which has recently been republished in a single volume.