Adventures with John Buchan

John Buchan: 1st Baron Tweedsmuir, 15th Governor-General of Canada, storyteller

Yesterday I decided not to finish a novel by one of my all time favorite authors, John Buchan. It was a hard choice to make.

Most of you have probably never heard of Buchan, unless you’re given to reading popular fiction from the first half of the twentieth century. He wrote biographies, adventure novels, historical novels, and historical adventure novels.* His most famous work, The Thirty-Nine Steps, was named one of the top hundred mystery novels of all time by the Mystery Novels of America in 1995. In 1935, Alfred Hitchcock made a movie of it that was so far removed from the book and so awful without reference to the book that I urge you not to watch it. Or at least don’t blame it on Buchan.

I stumbled across Buchan’s Prester John my freshman year in college, as part of a term paper on images of imperialism in British novels.** I was hooked.

Midwinter is not one of Buchan’s best-known novels. It’s not even one of his best novels. It includes the elements of his most popular novels: a elaborate puzzle, a cross-country chase, a boyish heroine, heroes who are confused by their reaction to said heroine, and multiple last minute saves. But as far as I’m concerned they just don’t gel. Set during Bonnie Prince Charlie’s invasion of England, Midwinter is an adventure novel without tension. We know that even if the hero escapes yet another trap set by his enemies, even if he uncovers the traitor in the Jacobite forces, even if he gets the critical information to his prince in time–it’s not going to make any difference. The Jacobites will still be brutally defeated at Culloden. The cause will still fail. Charles Edward Stuart will still flee England and become a drunken, cantankerous, maudlin nuisance to the French.

Frustrated by Midwinter, I am returning to my old favorites: The Thirty-Nine Steps, Greenmantle, Mr. Standfast, The Three Hostages, and Huntingtower. I want to cheer along as stalwart Richard Hannay, the chameleon-like Sandy Aburthnot and, most unlikely hero of all, retired Scottish grocer Dickson McCoy actually succeed in their efforts to defeat the Black Stone, German nationalists, Bolsheviks, international financial conspiracies, and other villains from the first decades of the 20th century. I want my heroes to have a fighting chance.***

* He also was an attorney and political hack who spent the last five years of his life as the Governor General of Canada.

** Not a topic reasonably covered in a 30-page term paper and one that I’ve returned to in various forms over the years.

*** A word of warning if I’ve inspired you to try Buchan: he shares some of the most unattractive prejudices of his period. His characters are free with racist comments against both Africans and Jews. They’re also pretty snotty about Germans and the Irish.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.