Christopher Hitchens thought that John Buchan marked the mid-point between Rudyard Kipling and Ian Fleming, and was superior to both in certain kinds of atmosphere, characterisation and sheer reading pleasure. It would make sense to add Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson to the lineage, but beyond the evolution of the spy story Buchan also marks a mid-point in the literary representation of the Scottish landscape between Sir Walter Scott and the twentieth century writers who sought to give that landscape a language of its own rather than the imposed – and imposing – rhetoric of Empire.
The Thirty-Nine Steps has now been part of our reading landscape for a hundred years. It was first published in serial form in Blackwood’s Magazine between July and September 1915, written while Buchan was laid up with the duodenal ulcer he generously passed on to one of his primary and most enduring characters. Buchan had already published Prester John, now much underrated, but it was with the creation of Richard Hannay (aka Cornelis Brandt, Cornelius Brand, Richard Hanau and other disguises) that he won a mass audience and began a literary trail as improbably beautiful as any in Scottish, or British, fiction. Buchan would have been aware, even amid the fog of war, of modest centenary celebrations for Waverley, which was published by another very public man but private author, in 1814.
It doesn’t do much to compare the books or run the same rule of veracity over them. They both work precisely because of their improbabilities – this is what Buchan meant when he referred to his books as ‘shockers’ – rather than despite them, improbabilities which are taken to extraordinary levels in the two wartime sequels, Greenmantle (with its chilly anticipations of radical Islam, Taliban, al’Qaeda, ISIS) and Mr Standfast (which puts Pilgrim’s Progress in uniform and on, or above, the Western Front).
It is easier to point to what is wrong with Buchan’s writing than to identify its strengths. At the beginning of The Three Hostages, the fourth Hannay book and the first post-war story, Dr Tom Greenslade steps downstage to ‘theorize’ on the making of fiction, having suggested with a nice little postmodern twist that Hannay might profitably spend peacetime writing about some of his exploits. The doctor picks up a detective yarn that Hannay has been reading and expresses both distaste and sharp diagnosis – ‘The author writes the story inductively, and the reader follows it inductively. Do you see what I mean?’. ‘Not a bit’, I replied’ – before handing his friend the enigmatic verbal formula that will help unlock the fresh mystery that is about to unfold.
It is understood and accepted that a Buchan plot relies absolutely on a level of coincidence that Dickens would have dismissed as improbable. At the moment of crisis, it is certain that the car trundling along the lonely road will be driven by an old friend, or corporal, or clubland antagonist of Hannay’s, or that the soldier he squares off against on a Glasgow street will turn up again, but next time infused with admiration for the officer’s chutzpah. As Hitchens pointed out, one smiles and instantly forgives Buchan’s devices. Whether one also forgives his character’s deadly prile of ethnic racism, sexism and anti-Semitism (with homophobia as the covered card) depends how far one is prepared to take historical relativism and changing values. To hear a speaker at a peace conference described as a ‘buck nigger’ or the assertion that the Jews are at the root of everything, good and bad, still somewhat takes the breath away; nor is there any getting away from Hannay’s obvious recoil from the perfumed nancy-boys who consider khaki unflattering and affect bad lungs in order to get away from the struggle convulsing Europe. But on the third charge, it’s worth noting that the two strongest and in some ways most charismatic characters in the Hannay novels are both women, Hilda von Einem in Greenmantle, and Mary Lamington in Mr Standfast (who has become Mary Hannay before The Three Hostages), and that their author stood for Parliament on a woman’s suffrage plank in 1910, with anti-protectionism, Lords reform and the introduction of national insurance completing his platform. This isn’t quite the imperialist lackey we’ve sometimes been led to expect.
It is also understood that our perception of Buchan and specifically of The Thirty-Nine Steps is profoundly influenced by successive cinematic reworkings, one of which is deemed classic, the others mostly preposterous. The Forth Bridge sequence in Hitchcock’s version has no basis in the novel – different line north – and there is no ‘memory-man’ device in the denouement of Buchan’s version, which depends on some Dorothy Sayersish stuff about tide-tables and plain, blind luck. Hannay gets off the northbound train somewhere near Newton Stewart and into a version of the Scottish landscape that is both similar to and profoundly changed from Scott’s when Edward Waverley makes his fateful turn into the Highlands. For both writers, crucially, the very topography is ‘storied’, invested with the successive passages of its human history. To that degree, it is threatening as well as benign, but also benign as well as threatening to a man of Hannay’s veld-hardened sensibilities. It is the first mark of his moral superiority to his enemies that he can read and cross a landscape and not impotently rely on metalled roads. It’s a clear mark of Buchan’s intelligence that his Border lands and later his Highlands are not filled with rude mechanicals with Brigadoon accents (though there is a touch of that misty fugue from reality whenever Hannay crosses the border) but also with fiercely intelligent, warmly giving people and with a secretive class of sinister agents and agencies who hide in but stand out against the heathery landscape. This becomes acutely obvious when Hannay, tracking the pacifists and infiltrators of Mr Standfast, penetrates into the interdicted lands closed to non-official personnel and non-residents by the infamous Defence of Realm Acts.
The most striking and obvious difference between Scott and Hannay has to do with nearness of subject. Waverley is subtitled ‘Tis Sixty Years Since, a reflection back from the Regency to the days of the ’45. Buchan is writing about war-clouds in real time. The occasion of Hannay’s first adventure is the threatened, then actual, assassination of a Balkans leader. Greenmantle, published in 1916, reaches its climax at the battle of Erzurum, which happened in January and February of that year. At its beginning, Hannay and his friend Sandy Arbuthnot are recovering from wounds received at Loos. It explains the blatant anti-Germanism of the stories and the set-piece speeches about atrocity, poison gas and massacred innocents. That every major military encounter is dismissed as a ‘show’ is both part of Hannay’s upper-labial rigidity but also a secret sign from the author that the real-world settings are not necessarily what the stories are about.
All three of what might be called the wartime Hannay novels deal with secret enclaves, initiates and non-initiates, a tension between the esoteric and the exoteric. In all three books, some form of arcane text is the trigger to action: the American Scudder’s notebook in The Thirty-Nine Steps, the gnomic ‘Kasredin. Cancer. v.I’ that is the only substantive clue in Greenmantle; the ‘Bommaerts. Chelius. Cage Birds, Wild Birds’ of Mr Standfast;a similar quiddity in The Three Hostages which depends on the unconscious resemblance between Dr Greenslade’s ‘inductive’ recipe for writing a shocker – ‘an old blind woman spinning in the Western Highlands, a barn in a Norwegian saeter, and a little curiosity shop in North London kept by a Jew with a dyed beard’ – and the taunting note sent by the kidnappers. It’s not quite true that Buchan doesn’t have a memory man, just in a different book. Greenslade is versed in Freudian theory and knows how the ‘subconscious’ works. Mr Standfast is extremely dependent on allegorical parallels with Bunyan’s tale of spiritual endeavour, growth and sacrifice.
This, I think, is the key to Buchan, not just as the ‘Presbyterian Cavalier’ of Andrew Lownie’s fine biography (to which Hitchens was responding), but as a kind of home-grown but well-travelled mystic, whose own ‘subconscious’ delivered conclusions and resolutions that were not planned in any overt way. There is a Sir Walter in the Hannay books. Bullivant, later Lord Artinswell, is the powerful government figure who lures Hannay away from home or more manly military duty to act out a deadly game that often requires the suspension of belief in the other sense. Just as we have to suspend belief to follow Buchan’s plots, so Hannay has to set aside every scruple and principle to reach his ends. We are conscious of Bullivant as the Unmoved Mover behind the scenes, but also that he has made the supreme sacrifice of a son to the Allied and the Christian cause. Harry Bullivant’s dying act is to bring out the ‘Kasredin. Cancer. v.I’ that sets the story along. Which makes Hannay, along with Peter Pienaar and John Scantlebury Blenkiron, the overweight dyspeptic American of Greenmantle who literally shape-shifts into a leaner and tougher man in Mr Standfast, into a kind of avenging archangel, not quite human.
Reading the Hannay books sequentially gives a very different and much deeper impression of their import. The final Hannay novel, The Island of Sheep, might be somewhat set aside, and The Three Hostages has something of the franchise about it, but the great trilogy marks an extraordinary spiritual progress, a deepening and widening of feeling that takes in questions of national identity versus friendship, common soldiery as against faceless command, sexual attraction and comradeship, and relates each of these pairings to their metaphysical equivalents as well. Hannay’s relationship with Peter Pienaar is explicitly homoerotic. As he nurses the wounded man while undercover in Europe, Hannay makes clear that even if the beloved Mary (who is at that moment facing severe sexual risk at the hands of the Moriarty-like villain who haunts the wartime novels) were to enter the room at that moment, he could not tear his eyes from the sleeping Peter.
Underneath the rattling good yarns (and they really do rattle) one hears a profoundly able mind meditating on ultimate things. And it was an extremely able mind, as politician, university chancellor, governor-general of Canada (where he died in 1940), but one which seemed to subject every secular consideration to the court of ultimate resort. Given how shaky the device is in the story, the thirty-nine steps, certainly in their titular form, might well be stages in an acolyte’s progress to wisdom. There is always a mystical component to every mystery tale and the shadowy Black Stone cabal that threatens Britain and Empire is of a piece with a whole line of Scottish literary villainy from Scott and Stevenson to J. K. Rowling. In terms of plot and character, Hannay and Potter are great-uncle and grand-nephew.
If a single trope from the Hitchcock film stands out in viewer’s minds it probably isn’t the Forth Bridge scene (which now looks tame in special effects terms) but the wasp-like, hovering autogyro that stalks Hannay on the moor. It is an ordinary aeroplane in the novel, but it is there to help dramatise a trajectory that emerges ever more clearly as the sequence advances. Peter Pienaar, the man of the South African plains, enlists in the Royal Flying Corps. He literally leaves the earth and soars upward from where he will make the supreme sacrifice and save the Allied salient in 1918. This chimes with me because my grandfather was a mining engineer (like Hannay) and geologist, who in 1915 enlisted in the RFC, going from dark, grimy underground to bright clean air. Buchan’s Western Front is very different from the received literary model with its roiling mud and obliterated geography. Through Pienaar, but also through a steady elevation of prose and of narrative confidence, the wartime sequence ends with a view from above. It is a criticism of a particular kind of romanticism that it extrapolates straight from aesthetics, individual feeling, straight to the feet of God, while excluding the social middle. It says something for Buchan’s extraordinary competence, as well as his only half-understood inklings of spiritual significance that he retained that good soldier’s ability to maintain human contact with men as well as command, an esoteric detachment as well as a profound democracy, geopolitics and love. There is no thesis to be written on Buchan the Mystic or ‘Richard Hannay: protofeminism and queer politics in the Buchan novels’ but the work demands and deserves a more inflected reading than it usually receives, without the kneejerks and without the intervention of Alfred Hitchcock and his successors. Taken together, the Hannay novels say much about Scotland and Scottishness, our place in it and beyond it, who we are, what we dream of, and what we ultimately aspire to.