The works of John Buchan have returned to the bookshops to a remarkable degree in recent years – a minor publishing revolution. Actually, his adventure novels and early spy stories – he called them ‘shockers’ – were never out of print to start with, but have now been joined by several of his thought-provoking historical novels such as Witch Wood and The Blanket of the Dark. There have been new editions of his biography of the Marquis of Montrose and his history of the Massacre of Glencoe. Perhaps most valuable of all, several anthologies of his short stories have been published, including a complete reissue of his collection, The Runagates Club. Buchan was an industrious writer, who should, one could argue, be recognised primarily as a master craftsman of the short story.

All of the above, of course, will still be news to those who have never read Buchan but who, nevertheless, do not doubt that he is a purveyor of trite, childish thrillers with undercurrents of anti-Semitic, racist and imperialist nastiness.

But we shall return to those issues later. To begin where Buchan did, he was born in Perth in 1875, his father a minister of the Free Church of Scotland. They later moved to a church and manse in Kirkcaldy and finally to another in Glasgow’s Southside. In Glasgow, Buchan attended Hucheson’s Grammar School and then went on to the University. Holidays were spent with his mother’s family at Broughton in the Borders, where the adventurous young Buchan soaked up the history and legend and grew to know every hill, river and moor.

Buchan eventually studied at Brasenose College, Oxford and began his relentless rise to upper-class respectability. His pursuit of status and honours is one of his least admirable characteristics, but at least he cannot be accused of cultivating a Woosteresque aristocratic idleness. He qualified as a lawyer (though he barely practised), served in South Africa’s colonial administration, was a war reporter and a director of propaganda during the First World War, got elected as MP for the Scottish Universities, twice undertook the ceremonial role of Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and was ennobled as Lord Tweedsmuir when taking up the Governor Generalship of Canada in 1935. Add to this that he was a keen angler, sportsman and mountaineer and you wonder how he fitted everything into a mere sixty-four years.

All that, of course, does not take account of his writing. His first book was published when he was eighteen and, as well as fiction, he produced respected biographies of Walter Scott and Montrose, copious volumes of history (he wrote Nelson’s History of the War while the Great War was still being fought) and even a technical work about the taxation of foreign income.

His Richard Hannay thrillers, such as The Thirty-Nine Steps, may seem dated now but bear in mind that Buchan was – unconsciously, perhaps – carrying out preliminary studies in the espionage novel for all who would come after him. Ian Fleming enjoyed Buchan’s works (he served on the 1942 Dieppe Raid; so did Buchan’s son William) and John le Carré has also paid tribute. Graham Greene was influenced by the memorable scene in The Power-House where Sir Edward Leithen walks through crowded, familiar London streets, yet senses that sinister, furtive agents are trying to waylay and divert him towards quiet byways where he can be despatched. It is a gripping sequence which effectively renders a benign setting sinister and oppressive. You could call it the birth of the modern paranoiac espionage thriller.

Buchan aspired to and adopted the life of an English country aristocrat, settling in Elsfield Manor in the Cotswolds. Yet, in addressing his writing it is important to bear in mind that he remained very much the Presbyterian Scotsman. Like so many of his literary forebears – Scott, Stevenson and especially Hogg – Buchan regularly addressed the duality of good and evil, the Godly and the Diabolic, in the individual and in the world. In Buchan, however, the division between good and evil is never simple; one character in the 1902 short story, ‘Fountainblue’, remarks, ‘There is a very narrow line between the warm room and the savage out-of-doors … I call the division a line, a thread, a sheet of glass’. Echoes of this idea, that comfortable civilisation is ever in danger of being consumed by the animal, the pagan, the savage, resonate in much of Buchan’s writing. It is obvious in Witch Wood, one of his serious historical romances, set in the Scottish Borders during covenanting times. A devout but humane young minister discovers pagan rites being enacted in his parish, and the head of the coven turns out to be his pharisaic church session-clerk. The same idea even permeates his popular shockers; the central character in The Courts of the Morning, Castor, effectively rules a Latin American republic through the multinational of which he is the head. Ruthless in his pursuit of power, he is truly diabolic, but ‘… is just as near being a saint’. In The Three Hostages the villain, Medina, can switch from suave charmer to someone who seems to ‘… annihilate … all the little rags of honest impulse and stumbling kindness with which we try to shelter ourselves from the winds of space’. Buchan villains may be satanically wicked and bent on world domination but they can still exert a seductive appeal. They are the prototype Bond villains, perhaps.

Recent anthologies demonstrate the wide range and accessibility of Buchan’s short story output. Buchan had a cool, crisp, effective prose – Stevenson’s influence is discernible – which could convey excitement at racing pace in his shockers, lovingly delineate natural beauty and convey the sense of sights and smells of a landscape, or pass on details of colour, mood and atmosphere.

My favourite Buchan short story is ‘Fullcircle’, from The Runagates Club; it is a carefully-structured, beautifully written tale about a house – modelled on his own Gloucestershire home, Elsfield Manor – and how it leaves its classical impress on its idealistic but shallow new occupants. It has the atmosphere and effect of a ghost story without being one; or perhaps it is. Read it and decide for yourself.

Some of Buchan’s full-length shockers are certainly lazily conceived; Buchan wrote stories in his head, then rattled them off when complete, rarely revising them. As a result, plot complexities are often resolved by unlikely coincidences; ‘by an amazing chance I knew him’ remarks Hannay in The Thirty-Nine Steps when the motorist he meets on a lonely road in the Borders turns out to be another London clubland figure. Buchan also keeps re-using the same (often rather wooden) characters and was unwilling to experiment with style and structure. Perhaps he did, as he claimed, write to please himself only.

More serious criticism is made of Buchan’s perceived imperialism, racism, anti-Semitism (quite a clutch of -isms) and snobbery. Buchan undoubtedly reflected the prejudices of his time (just as we do of ours) but the weightier charges can be quickly dismissed. Buchan was certainly an imperialist but this was the orthodoxy of his time. Accusations of racism and anti- Semitism are based purely on the assumption that Buchan echoed every prejudice of some of his fictional characters. Yet A Prince of the Captivity, for example, has a prominent Jewish character, and Buchan himself received an honour for his support of the Zionist cause. Ironically, the liberal critics who condemn him for anti-Semitism might also turn on him for supporting an Israeli state.

As for snobbery, Buchan certainly aspired to an upper-class lifestyle and status, and enjoyed creating upper-crust characters, but his popular fiction casts characters from all walks of life. There is the middle-class Glasgow grocer Dickson McCunn, who features in Huntingtower and two other novels, and Fish Benjie, the urchin who helps the conspirators in the hunting and fishing tale John MacNab. This spread of social class in his characters reflects Buchan’s wide range of friendships, which included Borders shepherds, Canadian trappers and Glasgow Labour MPs, as well as Lawrence of Arabia, Henry James, Rudyard Kipling, and the kind of landed gentry who form many of his other heroes. If some people from working-class backgrounds distrust Buchan for his dedicated pursuit of upper-class recognition (and I struggled with Buchan’s work at first, for this very reason) some of those born in the upper echelons equally could never forget that Buchan, for all his airs, was the son of an ordinary clergyman, and both Scottish and Presbyterian to boot.

Two of Buchan’s later works, perhaps less well-known than some, surprise by how modern they are in their themes and characters. A Prince of the Captivity (1933) is set in the post-First World War era of many of Buchan’s thrillers, but into the book he weaves many of the themes more commonly encountered in his historical fiction. For those who know only the caricature Buchan, stories of square-jawed sons of empire who confound villainous foreigners and live on a diet of mouldy ginger biscuits, the dark tone of this novel will be a surprise. Adam Melfort is a young war veteran who

is disillusioned at the apathy and lack of purpose in the post-war world. He seeks redemption first in action and activity, but turns his attention to a search for the potential leaders who can supply vision to a world that lacks direction. Consider this remark by one of the characters: ‘You’ve had a look round politics … They’re playing the old game in which they are experts, but it isn’t the game the country requires.’ Ponder those words next time you watch Prime Minister’s Questions on television.

Sympathetic characters include Mr. Macandrew, the Jewish Scotsman, and Joe Utlaw, a trade union organiser in the Midlands (so much for the elitist anti-Semite, then). Some of the characters turn out simply to be mouthpieces voicing the views of different classes, occupations, nations and political or religious groups. This makes the book perhaps one of his most quotable: you may not think of Buchan as an aphorist, but A Prince of the Captivity is full of splendid one-liners. At the level of plot, however, it is a failure: Melfort lurches from one form of self-redemption to another, without really knowing where he will end up. At times, the reader longs for Richard Hannay to swoop into the story, give Melfort a swig of brandy and tell him to stop snivelling and face it like a man. All the same, the novel will be an education for those who still harbour the popular prejudices against the author.

Buchan’s last novel, Sick Heart River (1941), features Sir Edward Leithen, from The Power-House, ‘Fullcircle’ and many other novels and short stories. Until this posthumously-published story he had been a shadowy, thinly-drawn figure. In Buchan’s final and arguably best novel, Leithen is dying. He gives up his work as a stuffy London lawyer and, determined to finish his life in useful service, takes the unlikely step of agreeing to search for a missing man in the freezing wastes of Arctic Canada.

As he searches, a hope is born that the fabled Sick Heart River will enable him to atone for his sins, and he determines to go there in order to die. His health breaks completely in the thick of a raging Arctic winter, and he is nursed through it by his guide; he emerges fit, healthy, strong, restored. He has been given a new life – how will he use it?

He chooses to serve alongside some Catholic missionaries who are working to alleviate the suffering of the despised, sickness-wracked Hare Indians.

You can be pretty sure that those who accuse Buchan of racism have never read Sick Heart River. ‘He discovered that tenderness and compassion which our Lord came into the world to preach, and in sympathy with others he lost all care for himself.’ His health gives out again and he dies in poverty, but also in a kind of triumph.

It is important to mention the work of David Daniell, whose The Interpreter’s House, published on the hundredth anniversary of Buchan’s birth, was the first serious, critical appraisal of Buchan’s writing. Daniell later edited two collections of Buchan’s short stories, many of which had been out of print for years. Daniell became a doughty defender of Buchan’s literary reputation and it can be depressing to see critics still dismissing Buchan having read little of his work and, one suspects, nothing of Daniell.

Buchan is not, of course, a great writer, but he is a good one and, despite the lazy prejudices of some, has remained a popular one. There is a great deal of richness in his writing. It has never been so easy to sample his works, with libraries and bookshops full of recent editions. Readers are now well equipped to make up their own minds.

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