A couple of weeks ago I was reminded that I did not blog last year about the most important anniversary of all, in a year full of important anniversaries, and that is the publication of John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps in the autumn of 1915. It was written by a convalescing Buchan, already a well known writer, in a couple of weeks, was serialized in Blackwood's Magazine in August and September and published as a book in October. As Robert McCrum writes here, only slightly condescendingly, it remains one of the best thrillers around. I do not agree, however, that the ghastly films and even ghastlier comedy parody, whose run in London came to an end a couple of months ago, show the book's enduring appeal. The fact, that none of these are really based on the book would indicate that it is the title and some mistaken idea of what it is about that has the enduring appeal.

The reason I remembered this omission was a coincidence of several events. I was yet again reading about Stalin but, more importantly, I went to an evening at the British Library where two panels discussed Eric Ambler and, more specifically, the three books by him that are being reprinted by the British Library in their Classic Thrillers series.  They are Passage of Arms, Light of Day and A Kind of Anger, all post-war books, as it happens. This is of some importance as Ambler changed his political opinions in the wake of the Nazi-Soviet Pact and as a result of learning a few things about the Soviet Union during the Second World War.

When he started writing in the thirties he was a straightforward left-wing author who became according to his own account, a fellow traveller. Despite attempts by one member of one panel to argue that he changed his mind because of the show trials and the purges, the fact remains that he did not. He went on being a fellow traveller until Ribbentrop and Molotov signed that Pact.

Nevertheless, he did change his mind and that is to his credit. The panellists, mostly, did not think so, it being a sort of a given in literary circles that left-wing thriller and detective story writers are more knowledgeable and sophisticated than the more traditional, conservative or right-wing ones, a category into which they dump the egregious Sapper, the far better John Buchan and the man who is probably the best living spy thriller writer, though he stopped writing a while ago, Anthony Price, whose series that began with The Labyrinth Makers I should really blog about.
Because you can be sophisticated and knowledgeable only if you are left-wing. The suggestion that in the thirties and forties being left-wing if that meant being pro-Soviet and showing Soviet agents as really rather jolly chaps who were on our side and meant very well, as Eric Ambler did then, indicated a deliberate blocking out of information about that country, about certain crimes in the West and about stories that were coming out of Spain, is not well received.

I was particularly amused by the embarrassment with which Ambler's later anti-Communist sympathies were discussed. While he had been sophisticated and knowledgeable in the thirties, by the time of the late forties and fifties he was merely cynical. Well, that's what you get if you turn on the well-meaning Communist homeland and Uncle Joe in the Kremlin. You become cynical and write a book that revolves round the East European show trials and which is mentioned only with a deprecating smile.

In discussions like this there are two whipping boys: Ian Fleming and John Buchan. The first is mentioned with a smile. Honestly, nobody can take those Bond books seriously, let alone the films, but that is not Fleming's fault. Of course, secret service was never like that but whoever thought it was? During a more recent discussion about one of Eric Ambler's books I tried to counter the usual, "well, it's nothing like Bond, where we know he is going to triumph, blah-blah-blah" by suggesting that we should compare him to John le Carré whose heroes are also flawed and the plots murky. The discussion came to a dead end. In parenthesis, I may add that I have read several of the latter's books, liked two a great deal, several others considerably less and agree with the Ambler panellists that the later ones are pretentious and dull. But he is better known than Eric Ambler because he never really changed his politics (except, maybe, in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy)

Buchan is another kettle of fish. I suspect why so many right-minded and right-on literary critics look embarrassed when they mention him is that deep down they suspect that he is actually very good and his understanding of the world around him was quite accurate. His early Hannay books are about defeating and outwitting the Germans; Dickson McCunn, especially in Huntingtower, fights the Bolsheviks who were, pace all those sophisticated left-wingers, really nasty people, other novels deal with attempts by individuals and organizations to grab power regardless of the casualties. Well, well, how unsophisticated. I mean, that never happens.

Going back to the one whose centenary we ought to have celebrated last year, The Thirty-Nine Steps, it is undoubtedly one of the most exciting thrillers around. From the moment Hannay finds Scudder shivering with well-justified fear to the end when the Black Stone are arrested it keeps the reader on tenterhooks. So much so, that it takes a couple of re-reads to notice that at least one brilliant episode is completely ridiculous. (No, I am not going to tell you, which one. Find it for yourselves.)

Buchan kept up with political developments and gave his allegiance to decency and liberalism with a small l in politics. As an MP he was a Unionist but was even before the First World War in favour of free trade, women's suffrage, national insurance and, curiously, curtailing the power of the House of Lords. On the other hand, he opposed the Liberal Party's welfare reforms because they were based on class hatred, fostered by the likes of David Lloyd George.

His female characters, incidentally, are more than feisty: they are frequently equal to the men in courage and ability. The woman who becomes Hannay's wife, Mary, is his superior in the secret service on their first meeting in Mr Standfast. Other heroines play their parts in the novels. Richard Usborne disliked them in Clubland Heroes because they were all slim and boyish in looks and appallingly sporty and energetic. But then, Usborne did not like Buchan or his characters, preferring Sapper's upper class thugs to the motley crew of achievers who populate the former's novels. One of the things I dislike about that comedy show of The Thirty-Nine Steps is that Hannay is described as a gentleman adventurer. He is not a gentleman but a South African engineer, his skills coming in very useful, with some murky episodes in the past, who becomes a gentleman through his service, both military and intelligence, during the war.

Buchan lived up to his view of women in his life, marrying Susan Grosvernor, a remarkable person as well as a good writer. I prefer not to discuss their children, who were all super achievers, especially in the intellectual world.

This blog has already covered Buchan's attitude to Jews and Zionism. (The posting does not mention this article by Roger Kimball and it is worth reading.) He was not an anti-Semite though Scudder in The Thirty-Nine Steps is. This is seen as a form of lunacy both by Hannay and Sir Walter Bullivant, the chief of the secret service. In 1930 Buchan espoused Zionism and by 1934, early by anybody's standards, was criticizing the new regime in Germany because of its behaviour towards the Jews. At this time there was some sympathy towards Hitler even on the Left and when that expired, thanks to Willi Münzenberg's Little Brown Book and mock trials, the Jewish question remained dormant as the Comintern preferred not to dwell on it. It took a few individuals like Buchan to raise the issue in between writing excellent (mostly) thrillers and history books as well as conducting a remarkably successful political career and being active in the Church of Scotland. All this before he became the Governor General of Canada in which position he is considered to have been successful right up to the stroke which caused head injuries and his death.

His literary legacy remains. I defy anyone to start reading The Thirty-Nine Steps, one hundred years old last autumn and not be pulled into a wonderful and thrilling world. Then go on to the other ones.


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