A certain great European power makes a hobby of her spy system, and her methods are not too particular. Since she pays by piecework her blackguards are not likely to stick at a murder or two.
~ John Buchan, The Thirty-Nine Steps, 1915
Author and statesman, John Buchan (1875-1940) was an extraordinarily prolific writer whose works include a four-volume history of World War I; biographies of Julius Caesar, Sir Walter Scott, and Oliver Cromwell; a textbook for accountants: The Law According to the Taxation of Foreign Income; and numerous collections of essays and poetry. But while he also held a number of influential political posts such as Lord High Commissioner of the Church of Scotland (1933-34) and Governor General of Canada (1935-40), he is perhaps best remembered for his espionage fiction, the success of which overshadowed not only his other literary accomplishments but also the varied and prestigious work he work he carried out as a British public servant.
Buchan’s most celebrated novels are the four espionage stories featuring the prototypical Buchan hero, Richard Hannay: The Thirty Nine Steps (1915), Greenmantle (1916), Mr. Standfast (1919), and The Three Hostages (1924). And although his work in the genre is by no means confined to the “Hannay Quartet,” taken together, they provide perhaps the best examples of, not only Buchan’s reliance upon his experience as an intelligence officer, but also his marked engagement with world geopolitical events as a backdrop to his fiction.
In retrospect, Buchan emerges as central to the evolution of the genre for his stories reflect the penetration of enemy espionage networks, depict solitary agents and lonely escapes, and, most importantly, expose the thin veneer that stands between civilized behavior and barbarism even in the most elegant London drawing rooms. For his time, Buchan defined the spy story formula and from the 1915 release of The Thirty-Nine Steps, until the 1963 appearance of Alec Lemas, the cynical British spy in Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, the formula remained firmly tied to Buchan.1
John Buchan was born in Scotland, won a bursary to study at Glasgow University and then pursued the classics at Brasenose College, Oxford. After graduating, he read for the bar and worked as an author and journalist, contributing to Blackwood’s Magazine and The Spectator, before joining the staff of Lord Milner, High Commissioner to South Africa, in 1901. Buchan spent the next two years dealing with the reconstruction of South Africa following the Boer War before returning to London. From 1903 to 1906 he worked as a barrister and explored a writing career, publishing numerous short stories and works of nonfiction. In 1907 he was made a director of the publishing firm Thomas Nelson & Son, and in 1910 published Prester John, an adventure tale set in South Africa.
During the First World War, Buchan was attached as a temporary Lieutenant Colonel to the headquarters staff of the British Army in France and, when Lord George became Prime Minister, he was made Director of Information, followed by a period as Director of Intelligence. It was in France that Buchan first made the acquaintance of an army officer named Edmund Ironside who had recently been selected to command the Allied forces at Archangel and was concerned with intelligence operations in Russia. Buchan later admitted that it was on Ironside – later to become Field Marshal Lord Ironside – that he modeled his fictional character of Richard Hannay, the expatriate Scot who protected British interests from German spies in the months preceding the outbreak of the war. Hannay became the very model of the “clubland hero” – a sophisticated denizen of London’s elite male clubs who could turn his good breeding, talents, and leisure time to the pursuit of patriotic espionage and, of course, the preservation of King and Country.
In The Thirty-Nine Steps, Buchan sets the stage for most of his espionage fiction as far as premise and intrigue are concerned. As the plot unfolds, Hannay, a mining engineer by profession, has just returned to London after a long stay in South Africa when he meets an American journalist named Scudder who tells of an international assassination plan. But Scudder is murdered and Hannay realizes that he himself is the prime suspect. Hannay suddenly finds himself in a kind of no mans’ land in which he alone has any inkling of the dastardly plot by enemies – namely the Germans – to undermine the military capability of the British Navy by stealing its secret plans. But this knowledge leaves him isolated and vulnerable, a citizen pitting his wits against not only enemy powers but also against the police who want Hannay as the prime suspect in Scudder’s murder. Hannay soon escapes to Scotland and, like anybody on the run, is expressly concerned with his own survival. As events move forward Hannay sees that his own fate and even his identity is inextricably linked with the survival of the British fleet and with the even larger issues of national survival that depend on the fleet. But in true Victorian fashion – seriousness combined with eccentricity and adventurousness with propriety – Buchan’s remarkable sense of duty and righteousness plays through: Instead of despair, we find that Hannay is only empowered by the urgency of the position in which he finds himself, for the Empire, at all costs, must be preserved.2
Hannay possesses but one clue to resolve his predicament: a cryptic note found inside the deceased Scudder’s notebook. The note reads: Thirty-nine steps – I counted them – High Tide 10:17 pm.3 After some thought, Hannay correctly deduces that this refers to the location of the anarchists’ beach house. Ultimately, Sir Walter Bullivant of the Foreign Office comes to Hannay’s assistance. This is a development that not only underlines Hannay’s earlier solitariness and desperation, but it also suggests that access to the corridors of power is the means through which some measure of “institutional responsibility” for Hannay’s actions is achieved. Without this ratification, Hannay’s activities could be considered to be “outside the law” and this would run counter to Buchan’s notion of service to, once again, King and Country. In this context, the entry of Sir Walter – who remains a recurring presence in the Hannay Quartet – enables the letter of “national interest” to authenticate the novel’s spirit of adventure. Hannay cannot be seen simply as a freelancing, possibly rogue individual, but rather as a tool of the government, drawing out the enemy so that they may be properly dealt with in the manner proscribed by law.
For Buchan, who some correctly suggest was the last of the Victorians, the agent was a moral soldier fortified not only by a mandate from political authority but also by inherited and unquestioned values of decency, tenacity, obedience and devotion to country. His orders are to maintain the world as it is; otherwise, anarchy will prevail.4 To this end, Buchan sought to provide an inner spirit to the spy novel, giving it a capacity to express, in terms of contemporary international politics and intrigue, his own longing for what was then the recently past era of British imperialism and the world-conquering boldness and personal heroism that marked its triumphs.5 And he succeeded. The Thirty-Nine Steps struck exactly the right note and, disregarding its more melodramatic episodes, it had all the right ingredients of the successful spy story: topicality in the midst of war, an exciting chase in which the spy-catcher is pursued by the spy’s agents, and a series of cinematic situations amidst the splendid background scenery of moor and mountain which made the book a natural for Alfred Hitchcock who adapted it for the screen in 1935.6
Greenmantle has the same basic thriller ingredients and takes Hannay on a mission to the Near East to foil a German-backed jihad. Again drawn from actual geopolitical alliances, this plot reflects contemporary British concerns of Turkey’s entry into the war and, in particular, of German attempts to enlist Islamic Turks in support of the German war effort. Greenmantle also moves espionage fiction out of its geographic absorption with Britain and the Continent and, again with an eye to Victorian England, marginally reawakens the imperial adventure story fostered by Kim, Rudyard Kipling’s 1901 colonial spy novel. Mr. Standfast follows a similar thread and paints a vivid story of the climax of the war on the western front and Germany’s spring 1918 offensive in which now Brigadier Hannay plays a leading role by foiling a German spy plot before returning to his army division where he sees the war to its conclusion.
In the last novel of the quartet, The Three Hostages, we find Hannay – now lord of Fosse Manor and married with a young son – retired to the country after his distinguished service in the First World War. But before long, a national crisis arrives and Hannay once again responds to the call of duty. The villain in this adventure is Dominick Medina who, upon first impression, seems every bit the handsome, witty, scholar and sportsman. But Medina also has a darker side in that he possesses a Svengali-like ability to bend men’s minds to his own will. The three hostages of the title are the victims of an international conspiracy – with Medina at its center – to hypnotize members of the families of important public figures and then manipulate them for criminal ends.
Buchan’s sense of place is discriminating and he makes that sense work for his readers much in the manner of Arthur Conan Doyle. Through landscape Buchan establishes a sense of moral as well as natural order: the forest cover, the streams (always called by their appropriate Scots or Irish name), the mountains and lakes of the country. By establishing the kind of place in which the action will occur, Buchan subtly tells the reader how to respond to any disturbance within that place while simultaneously remaining within its natural order. He was also considerably more aware of the “writer’s tricks” that the spy novel required, especially its pushing chance and happenstance to the outer limits of probability. In the dedication to The Thirty-Nine Steps, Buchan defines the story as “romance where the incidents defy probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible.”7 Yet Buchan’s “borders of the possible” are conveyed not through the narrator’s insistence, but rather through his establishment of a fictional sense of place amid real-life events, characters and topical concerns.
Although Buchan seemed not to take his spy stories too seriously, they are undoubtedly the expression, or perhaps even the fantasy life of a man who found himself on the forefront of the momentous social and political changes being threatened – and to a considerable extent brought into being – by the historical events of the first thirty years of the twentieth century.8 A period which, in Buchan’s view, translated into the promise of clandestine adventure, wherein the protagonist must save the day instead of seizing it, the latter being his supposedly natural inclination.
While Buchan did indeed modernize the spy novel, he did so not only by placing the Hannay Quartet in the then politically and technologically correct “here and now,” but also by permeating his stories with a certain plausible worldliness that reflected the actual concerns, dangers, and challenges of his own generation. But, even more importantly, he also struck the first modern note in the evolution of the genre with respect to the degree of personal doubt and insecurity that over-shadows the mission – the same note, albeit greatly amplified, that is found in the novels of such well-known successors as Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, and John Le Carré, whose spy stories may be correctly seen, in part at least, as a continuance of John Buchan and the Hannay Quartet.9
While serving as Governor-General of Canada, John Buchan died from a stroke on February 6, 1940. After a state funeral he was cremated and his ashes returned to England on the British warship HMS Orion for final burial at Elsfield, a small village near Oxford where Buchan had purchased the manor in 1920. As for Richard Hannay, he lives on and prospers. Following the Hitchcock adaptation, additional film versions of The 39 Steps were released in 1959 and 1978, while, most recently, Robert Towne – the Oscar-winning writer of Chinatown and Mission: Impossible – announced that he had made an agreement to write and direct an updated version of the novel.
1 Winks, Robin W. “John Buchan: Stalking the Wilder Game.” In The Four Adventures of Richard Hannay. Boston: Godine, 1988: xi.
2 Kimball, Roger. “Realism Coloured by Poetry: Rereading John Buchan.” The New Criterion, September 2003: 16-23.
3 Buchan, John. The Thirty-Nine Steps. New York: Dover, 1994: 73. (reprint)
4 O’Brien, George. “John Buchan.” In Robin W. Winks, ed., Mystery and Suspense Writers. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1998: 109.
5 Cawelti, John G. and Bruce A. Rosenberg. The Spy Story. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987: 100.
6 McCormick, Donald, and Katy Fletcher. Spy Fiction: A Connoisseur’s Guide. New York: Facts on File, 1990: 40.
7 Buchan, 1994: v.
8 Liukkonen, Petri. “John Buchan.” Books and Writers, May 2001: www.kirjasto.sci.fi/buchan.htm.
9 O’Brien, 1998: 109.