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John Buchan led a truly extraordinary life: he was a diplomat, soldier, barrister, journalist, historian, politician, publisher, poet and novelist. He was born in Perth in 1875, the eldest son of a Free Church of Scotland minister, and educated at Hutcheson’s Grammar School in Glasgow. He graduated from Glasgow University then took a scholarship to Brasenose College, Oxford. During his time there – ‘spent peacefully in an enclave like a monastery’ – he wrote two historical novels.
In 1901 he became a barrister of the Middle Temple and a private secretary to the High Commissioner for South Africa. In 1907 he married Susan Charlotte Grosvenor; they had three sons and a daughter. After spells as a war correspondent, Lloyd George’s Director of Information and a Conservative MP, Buchan – now Sir John Buchan, Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsfield - moved to Canada in 1935 where he had been appointed Governor-General.
Despite poor health throughout his life, Buchan’s literary output was remarkable – thirty novels, over sixty non-fiction books, including biographies of Sir Walter Scott and Oliver Cromwell, and seven collections of short stories. In 1928 he won the prestigious James Tait Black Memorial Prize, Britain’s oldest literary prize for his biography of the Marquis of Montrose. Buchan’s distinctive thrillers – ‘shockers’ as he called them – were characterised by suspenseful atmosphere, conspiracy theories and romantic heroes, notably Richard Hannay (based on the real-life military spy William Ironside) and Sir Edward Leithen. Buchan was a favourite writer of Alfred Hitchcock, whose screen adaptation of The Thirty-Nine Steps was phenomenally successful.
John Buchan served as Governor-General of Canada until his death in 1940, the year his autobiography Memory Hold-the-door was published. His last novel Sick Heart River was published posthumously in 1941.
Richard Hannay sets off an a hair-raising journey through German-occupied Europe to meet his old friend, Sandy Arbuthnot in Constantinople. They struggle to subvert German espionage attempts in the Middle East and halt the further spread of pro-German sympathy in the Muslim world. This edition has a hugely informed and terrific Introduction by Christopher Hitchens. Set during World War I, Greenmantle is a controversial meditation on the power of political Islam (it was pulled from Radio 4's schedule at the time of the 7 July bombings).
A classic and hugely influential thriller and featuring possibly the most exciting and famous chase in fiction. It's also one of the most filmed, most adapted and best-loved spy thrillers in history. May 1914, Richard Hannay is asked for help by an American spy who has uncovered an assassination plot. The spy is promptly murdered in Hannay's flat, and Hannay is compelled to flee and prevent the assasination while on the run from the police in Scotland. With an Introduction by Stuart Kelly.
This is the fourth of the five Richard Hannay novels and in it all of Buchan's strengths and weaknesses are on show. His use of motifs are most definitely his strengths and in this one, as in Greenmantle it is a riddle or 'key' which contains the clue to the kidnap plot. The villain is one of Buchan's most memorable ones - Medina as you as the reader are both attracted by him and repulsed by him in equal measure. Hannay's success in unmasking and thwarting the villain comes to its denouement on a craggy outcrop in Scotland in which fear and terror is centre stage.
Bringing his firsthand knowledge of trench warfare and government subterfuge into play, John Buchan has created a cracking, classic thriller. Set during the First World War it illuminates brilliantly the experience of war both on the battle front and on the home front through the eyes of the chief protagonist Richard Hannay also featured of course in probably his best known work The Thirty-Nine Steps. Mr Standfast provides a search for meaning in loss; loss through death on the battle field and although its heroes are fictional the book is peopled with real examples for during the war Buchan was to lose numerous friends and associates and as a consequence the loss feels all the more real as you are driven through the narrative at speed. From the Introduction by Hew Strachan in Mr Standfast: 'Mr Standfast reflects the big issues of its day, but it is a spy story (and, it has to be said, a rather less successful love story), written by a master of the genre. It is to be enjoyed as such.But the big questions of its day deepen and enrich the text, giving it an emotional weight alongside its undoubted pace and masterful narrative.'
This is the fifth and last Richard Hannay novel but was written and published a decade after the fourth Hannay adventure The Three Hostages just a year or two prior to the start of World War Two. It is often considered to be the forgotten Richard Hannay novel. It features many of the regular characters from the other Hannay novels but here Hannay is rather more passive than in previous novels in which he features. There are some stunning descriptive passages about country life, landsape and place and thankfully although written against the backdrop of The Great Depression and the rise of Hitler and Mussolini, it is an optimistic book and a call to arms that even the most ordinary of men feel they can make a difference. There are scenes of great adventure throughout the book but there isn't a pervading sense of threat in quite the way previous Hannay books had. From the Introduction by Andrew Lownie in The Island of Sheep: Increasingly critics have become aware of the depth and complexity of Buchan’s writing and the hidden subtexts, literary, geographical and historical, and Classical references which here range from Homer, Matthew Arnold and Robert Browning to episodes in African history and the Norse Sagas. A strong influence on the book was Robert Louis Stevenson. Buchan’s thrillers had hitherto not featured children as central characters but The Island of Sheep, especially the last part, is dominated by the adventures of Peter John and Anna, placing the book very much in the tradition of Treasure Island and Kidnapped. Buchan had just finished writing a biography of Walter Scott (1932) and The Island of Sheep is replete with Scott references. This is not coincidental. One of the themes of the book, the recovery of an ancestral Northern culture, that fascinated Buchan the politician as well as the writer had also been an important inspiration for Scott and was currently being mobilised by the Nazis. There is also a conscious borrowing as a literary conceit from Joseph Conrad. Just as there are similarities between Courts of the Morning and Nostromo (1904) – San Tome is the name of the mine in both books – The Island of Sheep reaccentuates motifs from Conrad’s Victory (1915).The Island of Sheep is one of Buchan’s least known books, but, with its various layers of meaning, excellent descriptive writing and several wonderful set pieces of action, it is a book well worth reading after the early Hannay adventures. As The Times Literary Supplement wrote in its review:If we sometimes feel that John Buchan brings gifts of too high an order to the adornment of stories of mere plot and counterplot, it is his own generosity that prompts the criticism. He is so evidently very much more than a yarnspinner; and yet as a yarn-spinner so complete a master.
Prester John is Buchan's first adventure story and is comparable in style and pace to Rider Haggard and Robert Louis Stevenson. Set in South Africa in 1900 it has a simple but compelling story which will keep you hooked to the pages from start to finish. From the eastern shores of Scotland to Southern Africa the reader is taken into an exciting but entirely credible world of adventure involving fabulous treasure, violence, double-dealing, a native uprising and the protagonist's eventual triumph over the forces of evil. From the Introduction by Trevor Royle in Prester John: Prester John is a wonderfully solid achievement. Not only did it give Buchan the confidence that he was a natural teller of tales but its fast-moving action looks forward to later adventure novels such as The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), Greenmantle (1916) and Huntingtower (1922). It was the prentice piece on which all his future fiction was constructed.
Set during the Napoleonic Wars, The Free Fishers is classic Buchan and his last historical novel. It's a fast-paced tale of treason, espionage and romance. You'll smile at the story and the old-fashioned dialogue at times but thoroughly enjoy the pace of the story, the straightforwardness of the characters - villains, heroes - and the dramatic varierty of their experiences. As a historian and a novelist he lovingly creates the reality of the time interwined with the intrigue and motives of the characters that make up this excellent novel. From the Introduction by Douglas Hurd in The Free Fishers: 'In The Free Fishers John Buchan brought together the gifts and tastes which struggled for primacy in his own life. He was a Scot who loved England, an academic who admired dramatic action, a Conservative with a sympathy for radicalism, a man of conventional habits who was fascinated by secret societies. One such society was that of the Free Fishers. This gathering of good-hearted smugglers gives the novel its name, but they lurk in the background as the story unfolds.'
In the hands of a master thriller writer, the dark, dangerous days of Tudor England come alive as never before. An anonymous young man's life is about to be changed, as could the course of history. It's 1536 and powerful men reveal to this young man that it is he, and not the tyrannical Henry VIII, who should be in the throne of England. Can these powerful men persuade him to think that treason, rebellion and murder are reasonable risks to achieve their goal in this vivid evocation of the dark days of Tudor England? From the Introduction by Robert Hutchinson in The Blanket of the Dark: 'His historical novels may have been eclipsed in popularity by the timeless derring-do appeal of his adventure stories, but this is wholly wrong in my view. Their dialogue might sometimes seem a little contrived, or a little pedestrian, but they form a corpus of powerful narratives which remain page-turners even to our jaded modern tastes. The Blanket of the Dark is one of the most compelling and, what is more, evokes the real, naked fear in Tudor England.'
Regarded as one of the finest historical novels ever written, Jacobites, spies and thrilling intrigue are brought together by the master of suspense. As Bonnie Prince Charlie marches his army into England, his confidant Alastair Maclean is despatched on a secret mission. As he travels to rally the west of England to the Prince's cause, it begins to look as if someone is leaking information to the Government forces putting the campaign in peril. can Alastair find the spy and save his Prince, his cause and even just his own life? From the Introduction by Stuart Kelly in Midwinter: 'Midwinter may move with the pace and vigour of one of Buchan's shockers, but it is a more mature and sophisticated novel, both morally astute and emotionally complicated. The reader knows the outcome in advance - rather than the 'if' of the thrillers, Buchan explores the 'how' and the 'why' of the historical novel. It also lends a quiet irony to many of the characters' aspirations and exchanges: Alastair's final epiphany is of 'the ironic pattern of life spread out beneath, as a man views a campaign from a mountain, and he came near to laughter - laughter with an undertone of tears'. J.B. Priestley once complained that Buchan's steady stream of popular fiction distracted him from writing a truly great novel: Midwinter shows exactly what he was capapble of as a novelist. But most of all, Midwinter is the finest tribute to the English landscape, English customs and English character ever penned by a Scotsman.'
This was John Buchan's favourite novel and an inspiration for the young C S Lewis. It's a terrifying portrait of a cruel and intolerant age set against the backdrop of the Covenanting time. Its main character David Semphill must choose between his God, his beliefs and the woman he loves. As the local minister he must lead a community that is drifting towards religious extremes. As a man he must watch the woman he loves caught up in accusations of black magic. The veneer of God-fearing respectability becomes thinner and thinner in an increasingly intolerant age. From the Introduction by Allan Massie in Witch Wood: 'Buchan was at ease in the seventeenth century, and of all his novels Witch Wood was the most ambitious, the longest pondered, and, with the exception of Sick Heart River, written in the last months of his life, the most deeply felt.Buchan thought Witch Wood the best of his novels, and, though it has never been the most popular, he was right. It goes deeper than anything else he wrote. If it is first and foremost a historical novel, exploring in the manner of Scott and the mature Stevenson, a significant moment in Scottish history, and offering a study of Scottish society, and of the ideology which dominated that society and formed the historical character of the Scottish people, it is also a book which raises questions - disturbing questions - about human nature, about our capacity for self-deception, and about the consequences of repressing certain elements of that nature. Buchan's contemporary Ford Maddox Ford held that the best imaginative literature has the power, denied in his view in other art forms, to make us think and feel at the same time. Witch Wood - more that anything else Buchan wrote - has that power. Like all great novels it makes a strong first impression, draws you to read it a second and third time, and reveals more at each subsequent reading. '
This is John Buchan's first full-length work of fiction written towards the end of the 19th century and set in the 17th century. It's a tale of adventure in the tradition of Robert Louis Stevenson. It tells the story of two lifelong rivals - John Burnet of Barns and his cousin Captain Gilbert Burnet. Returning home to the Scottish Borders John, the last of an ancient line of Border Reivers, finds Gilbert has denounced him as an agent of the covenanters, making him an outlaw. betrayed by his ruthless cousin and having lost everything he holds dear, John must fight just to stay alive. From the Introduction by Sir Tam Dalyell in John Burnet of Barns: I doubt if John Burnet of Barns will ever oust The Thirty-Nine Steps, Greenmantle and other later novels for pride of place in the nation's estimation (or the tracts published in 1934, six years before he died, Gordon of Khartoum and Oliver Cromwell, from the author's pride of place - he yearned to be venerated as a seroius historian). But, I do applaud Birlinn for republishing John Burnet of Barns. For two reasons above all, in my view, it is a ripping good yarn. And, it is a book which lends itself to reading to children by parents, at an age when it is important that they be read to.
Sick Heart River was John Buchan's most powerful novel, completed just days before his death in Canada and published posthumously in 1941. The rich, authentic descriptions of the rugged Canadian landscape were influenced by a voyage down the Mackenzie River in 1937, at which time Buchan was Governor-General of Canada. Lawyer and politician Sir Edward Leithen - perhaps the most autobiographical of Buchan's characters - is asked by a former colleague to find his niece's husband who has disappeared into the Canadian wilderness. Despite being diagnosed with advanced tuberculosis and given just a year to live he agrees to help.
'The Dancing Floor is one of Buchan's most unusual and surprising tales. it's a love story, a dramatic thriller and a tale of the clash between paganism and christiantity. Young Englishwoman Kore Arabin has inherited a remote Greek island Plakos from her unscrupulous father, who was reviled by the locals. The superstitious islanders who are full of wild beliefs and pagan habits, blame Kore for every minor mishap and natural disaster, and they are about to sacrifice her as a witch in the sacred ground called 'The Dancing Floor'. Sir Edward Leithen and his acquaintance Vernon Milburne must save her. From the Introduction by Robin Hardy in The Dancing Floor: 'Buchan plucks threas from mythology and weaves a spell set on a Greek island where even the flora seems to be part of the plot: 'Rivers of narcissus and iris and anenome flooded over the crest...The ground was warm under the short herbage, and from it came the rich, clean, savour of earth quickening after its winter sleep under the spell of the sun.' We can almost smell it. Magic is in the air. Terrible, wonderful things are about to happen. John Buchan is at it again.'
The Power House, written in 1916, is the first adventure of the classic Buchan hero, the prosperous Scots lawyer and MP Sir Edward Leithen, whose measured daily routine of 'flat, chambers, flat, club' is enlivened by the sudden disappearance of Charles Pitt-Heron, one of his Oxford contemporaries. Leithen steps up to the mark, coordinating efforts to thwart those responsible for his friend's departure; meanwhile, fellow politician Tommy Deloraine heads to Moscow to track down the missing man. As the investigation develops, Leithen finds himself pitted against green-spectacled villain Andrew Lumley and a terrifying international anarchist network called 'The Power-House'. From the Introduction by Stella Rimmington in The Power-House: The Power-House is one of the least known of Buchan's mature works, a tale without a plot, and so full of holes that it calls to mind Samuel Johnson's definition of a 'network' - 'anything reticulated and desuccated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections'. It is pure essence of Buchan - a demonstration of his magical power to weave a tale out of no materials but the threads and colours of his imagination. It does, however, possess a theme - John Bunyan's idea, in Pilgrim's progress, of mne of goodwill and courage struggling with an intelligent, evil power at the root of all the world's troubles and confusions. The same idea inspired the Richard Hannay stories that quickly followed the appearance of The Power-House in 1913: The Thirty-nine Steps, Greenmantle, Mr Standfast and The Three Hostages. However, in none of Buchan's books is there a keener sense of place or a clearer victory of sense over unreason than in The Power-House.'
From the Introduction by Andrew Greig* in John MacNab: John MacNab is the sunniest of Buchan's fictions, as Sick Heart River is the most dark and deeply felt. Both take Sir Edward Leithen as the central character, the one Buchan wryly acknowledged as being closest to himself. John MacNab stands apart from the Richard Hannay novels for it is an adventure, not a thriller...It also has the most interesting female character in Buchan's fiction. The novel is a comedy-adventure, full of flicks of wit, mischief, mockery and mickey-taking; like all good comedy it ends in an engagement, a feast, self-knowledge, forgiveness and healing. *Andrew Greig wrote The Return of John MacNab. It may have less elevated protagonists, different politics and a female character that was centre stage, yet the heart of MacNab remains the same and it's well worth a read once you've the book that inspired it.