Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps

John Buchan was a writer with a rich hinterland—and an affection for “shockers”

Ursula Buchan

The dedication at the front of Graham and Hugh Greene’s famous anthology of espionage literature, The Spy’s Bedside Book (1957), reads: “To the immortal memory of William le Queux and John Buchan”. These days, William le Queux is hardly a name to conjure with, but John Buchan has somehow avoided being brushed into the dustpan of literary history. The Thirty-Nine Steps, his tale of pre-Great War Prussian espionage, has never been out of print in 105 years, which makes it, by Leslie Stephen’s definition, a classic. In Notes from a Library, Stephen wrote: “It takes a very powerful voice and a very clear utterance to make a man audible to the fourth generation”. I cherish a recently-taken photograph of a group of young Buddhist student monks in Kathmandu, smiling and waving their paperback copies, which tell the story of Richard Hannay’s first clash with devilishly clever German spies.

The passage that the Greenes chose to anthologise came from the beginning of Greenmantle, the second of the Hannay books, which was published in 1916, the year after The Thirty-Nine Steps. And it is these early Hannay thrillers which have given John Buchan a lasting reputation as a writer of spy stories, even though Hannay was a rank and reluctant amateur and never a professional like John Le Carré’s George Smiley. According to the American academic, LeRoy L. Panek, the modern espionage novel “simply would not have developed along the same lines without him”.

Strangely, Buchan knew little about spying when he wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps and Greenmantle. What knowledge he had acquired before 1917 was largely gleaned from bumping up against intelligence officers during the Boer War, when he was
working as a colonial administrator for Lord Milner; most particularly, he knew and admired the multi-lingual Lieutenant Edmund Ironside (later Field Marshal the Lord Ironside), and always maintained that he had partly based Richard Hannay on him.

However, in early 1917, after a stint as a war correspondent and chronicler, he was appointed Director of Information, in charge of propaganda, which in those days meant the dissemination of information about the Allied objectives and achievements to neutral and allied countries, a necessarily clandestine operation. In the course of his work, he came to know much more about British intelligence, even though he was plainly never a spymaster. (He was far too busy sending Paul Nash to paint whatever he saw on the Ypres Salient.)  Certainly, when researching my biography of my grandfather, I found allusions in correspondence to meetings with Major-General Sir George Macdonogh, Director of Military Intelligence, although frustratingly there were never reports of what was said. Buchan was ever after extremely discreet about his wartime work, but something of what he knew about codes and cyphers can be read in a gripping short story, “The Post”, not published until many years after his death, but which appeared, in a thoroughly watered-down form, as The Loathly Opposite, in his story collection, The Runagates Club (1928). The Post tells the tale of a codebreaker, who goes to the wire (the title is a racing term) to crack a seemingly impossible cypher, giving vital details of German dispositions in Palestine in September 1918, and almost cracking up himself in the process. I suspect, but it can only be a suspicion, that The Post was written for Buchan’s own amusement soon after the war and he never felt it right that he should expose his inside knowledge so obviously to public view.

In 1932, however, he wrote a novel, A Prince of the Captivity, in which the hero—a man recently released from prison, having taken the rap for a crime his wife had committed—becomes an undercover agent in German-occupied Belgium during the First World War. No one who reads it can be left in any doubt that Buchan knew pretty clearly how that system worked.

My grandfather took up thriller writing because he had always enjoyed reading what he called “shockers” and was frustrated that, in the Edwardian age, they were not very good. Even William le Queux suffered from churning out too much of the stuff, at a rate of eight novels a year. Buchan admired The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers (1903), which fed British paranoia about a possible German invasion, and The Thirty-Nine Steps was undoubtedly influenced by it; in plot, that is, but, mercifully, not in mind-numbing detail about sailing boats, tides and currents. I believe that he was most influenced, in his mystery fiction at least, by Robert Louis Stevenson, H. Rider Haggard and Joseph Conrad.

The dust-jacket of the first edition of “The Thirty-Nine Steps” (©Kenneth Hiller)

Buchan wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps in six weeks in the latter months of 1914, when sick in bed with a duodenal ulcer and unfit for military service. Even such a slim novel, only 245 pages long in the first edition, exhibits the rich hinterland of this Scottish son of the manse, especially his early grounding in the Bible, the classics and Scottish literature; these fostered a wonderfully spare, attractive style, with occasional parallelism derived from the Psalms. The book’s enormous success was immediate, and its breakneck pace and Everyman hero were especially valued by hard-pressed soldiers in the trenches. It made Buchan so much money that he committed himself to writing a mystery or historical novel every year from 1920 until he went to Canada in 1935 as Governor-General.

However, thanks to Alfred Hitchcock, and the immense success of his 1935 film, The Thirty-Nine Steps has proved to be a great granite edifice, blocking the view and preventing readers from seeing just how extraordinarily versatile a writer Buchan was.

As well as spy novels, he wrote straight adventure stories for adults and children, supernatural novels, historical fiction, short stories in several genres, war poetry, journalism, biographies, literary and political essays, works of political thought and a legal textbook. The commercial world loves to pigeon-hole a writer, of course, and Buchan, the literary editor and director of a publishing company, knew that very well, but he rarely suppressed the impulse to please himself.  Here is part of the wry dedication to “A young gentleman of Eton College” at the beginning of The Three Hostages:

HONOURED SIR, On your last birthday a well-meaning godfather presented you with a volume of mine, since you had been heard on occasion to express approval of my works. The book dealt with a somewhat arid branch of historical research, and it did not please you. You wrote to me, I remember, complaining that I had “let you down,” and summoning me, as I valued your respect, to “pull myself together.” In particular you demanded to hear more of the doings of Richard Hannay, a gentleman for whom you professed a liking . . .

“Arid” (in fact, anything but) branches of historical research included serious biographies—of Scott, Montrose, and Cromwell, in particular. Montrose won the James Tait Memorial Prize, and Sir Walter Scott was reckoned by G.M. Trevelyan, no mean stylist himself and a pre-eminent historian, to be the best single-volume of biography in the English language. Buchan derived the most satisfaction writing historical fiction, for he had a rare capacity to imagine landscapes as they would have looked in earlier centuries, and people them with credible characters. Notable are The Blanket of the Dark, Midwinter and, his own favourite, Witch Wood, which he wrote at the same time as Montrose, and in which the great Captain-General has a walk-on part. 

Buchan’s rich hinterland derived not only from his rigorous education and Scottish upbringing at the end of the 19th century, but from the extraordinary variety of occupations he pursued, at one time or another. He was, inter alia, scholar, bibliophile, journalist, barrister, colonial administrator, publisher, war correspondent, head of propaganda, deputy chairman of Reuters, Member of Parliament, and finally Governor-General of Canada. His leisure was as active as his working life: mountaineering, thirty-mile walks on a Sunday afternoon, fly-fishing and bird-watching.

These activities fostered such a catholicity of tastes that there were far too many holes for the pigeons. But, although his preoccupations were disparate, his views on life were settled, which give his works an unexpected unity. He was a convinced Christian, a conservative and unionist in politics, a lover of his country, an eternal optimist and a deep believer in the essential quality of people of every kind. He once wrote: “The task of leadership is not to put greatness into humanity, but to elicit it, for the greatness is already there.” In a time of pessimism and world-weariness, that phrase has the same effect on me as a glass of champagne, drunk very quickly. And I imagine that is why, despite some dated preoccupations and language here and there in his works, many people still derive so much pleasure from reading him.


“Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps: A Life of John Buchan” by Ursula Buchan is published by Bloomsbury, £25; paperback, £10.99

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