Great Scot

Between Kipling and Fleming stands John Buchan, the father of the modern spy thriller

"There is a dry wind blowing through the East, and the parched grasses wait the spark." I can remember the frisson I felt when I first read that line, as I can recall the faint sense of absurdity that accompanied the thrill. People don't really talk like that, as I half understood when I was twelve, but then, they don't really talk like Kipling's believable soldiers either. The words—which occur in the opening pages of John Buchan's Greenmantle—are uttered in a secret office near Whitehall, in London, as Sir Walter Bullivant briefs Richard Hannay on the extreme hazard and implausibility of his upcoming mission to save the empire. Even at that age I preferred Bullivant's style to the affected gruffness of "M" as he summoned Commander James Bond to a confidential session on the newest Red Menace supervillain.

In several respects Buchan is as different from Fleming as chalk is from cheese. The hero Hannay is uninterested in sex, revolted by all forms of cruelty, and ill at ease in the modern world of cleverness and greed and deceit. He is a late-Edwardian version of the strong, silent type that upheld chivalric values while playing "The Great Game," and he is doomed to see most of his friends immolated in the trenches of the Western Front. But Buchan spanned the gap between Kipling and Fleming, and his stories furnished a crossover point for beginning readers between the straightforward "adventure" book and something resembling the adult novel. I like to think that they still do, and this in spite of their occasional preposterousness ("There are some things," Hannay reflects near the beginning of Mr. Standfast, "that no one has a right to ask of any white man").

Buchan's following in America probably derives chiefly from The Thirty-Nine Steps—the first of the Hannay tales, and the one that was famously transferred to celluloid by Alfred Hitchcock. Here one has a very well shaped thriller, with many vertiginous shifts of plot and scene, a dastardly set of foes, and a game played for exceedingly high stakes. The reliance on coincidence or the fortuitous is often questionable, but the results at the same time are never quite incredible. And the hero is, as I hinted before, more of an innocent abroad than a calculating agent. He is actuated principally by loyalty, either to friends or to country, and when he meets sheer evil, he is often baffled as well as repelled. This innocence may or may not be the counterpart of his creator's rather alarming sense of integrity. What is a modern and wised-up reader to make, for example, of Hannay's encounter (again in Mr. Standfast) with the lovely Mary Lamington: "I didn't even think of her as pretty, any more than a man thinks of the good looks of the friend he worships"? Since Mary is also described as having a boylike grace of movement, even the least jaded attention is inevitably drawn to what is apparently being disowned. We do not nowadays think of the British Secret Service as a place where the polymorphously perverse was unknown.

One of the merits of Niall Ferguson's recent work on the British Empire is the reminder it provides of how Scottish that empire was. Not only did the Scots provide a vast proportion of the soldiers and miners and ship's engineers of the system (I have seen it argued that Scotty on Star Trek is a tribute to this grand tradition), but several colonies bore a distinctly Caledonian stamp. Even today a visitor to New Zealand or Canada is bound to notice the influence of Scottish architecture and of the Scottish educational and religious heritage; and in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia, and the city of Blantyre, in Malawi, the imprint of Scotland is to be felt in numerous distinctive ways. The battle flag of the Confederacy, indeed, displayed the cross of Saint Andrew; and I recently read an account of the revolution in Texas in which one of the proclamations under discussion featured a stirring line from the poetry of Robert Burns—the more impressive because it was unattributed and assumed to be familiar in the context.

Scotland, Christianity, and empire were the air in which Buchan moved. Born to a struggling minister of the Free Church of Scotland (a congregation that had seceded from the established local church and stood for a flinty Calvinism), he revered the epic story of David Livingstone as a missionary in Africa, went out to serve as a member of Sir Alfred Milner's governing team during and after the Boer War, was elected to Parliament as a Scottish member (on a liberal Conservative and Ulster Unionist platform), and ended his days in 1940 with the title of Lord Tweedsmuir and the office of governor-general of Canada. In his fiction Highland and Lowland dialects are employed in almost every chapter, and there are recurrent allusions to Scottish vernacular poetry and song.

The famous contrast in the Scottish character is between the dour, stoic, and economical and the romantic, passionate, and rebellious. Buchan was a salient instance of this contradiction, which expressed itself mainly in the contrast between his life and his writing. He was continent in all matters; punctilious as to time and bookkeeping; deeply attached to his national Church; and a tightly buttoned scholar, civil servant, politician, and diplomat. His every leisure moment was devoted to writing, with an output of novels, biographies, and histories that amounted to graphomania. His chief recreational outlets were riding, climbing, and walking. An ulcerated stomach compelled a strict dietary regime. No breath of scandal touched his public or private life. His attitude to authority and empire was trustful and loyal. But his writing shows an attraction first to the exotic and the numinous, and second to the underdog, the rebel, and the outsider. In many of his novels there are mysterious and evil women with hypnotic, magical properties—including the bewitching Hilda von Einem, in Greenmantle, and a female in The Three Hostages whose hands "were laid on the arms of the chair"; "hands more delicate and shapely I have never seen, though they had also the suggestion of a furious power, like the talons of a bird of prey."

The occult, especially as it derives from the East or from Africa, provides a continual undertone of fascination, attractive and repulsive in almost equal degrees. In a remarkable short story, "The Grove of Ashtaroth," the hero finds himself obliged to destroy the gorgeous little temple of a sensual cult, because he believes that by doing so he will salvage the health and sanity of a friend. But he simultaneously believes himself to be committing an unpardonable act of desecration, and the eerie voice that beseeches him to stay his hand is unmistakably feminine.

In a not dissimilar way Buchan found himself admiring the spirit of the defeated Boers, who with their stern Calvinism and equestrian tactics may have reminded him of clan fighters on the Scottish borders. One of his best-drawn fictional heroes is the Afrikaner tracker Peter Pienaar, Richard Hannay's tough and self-sacrificing sidekick in three of the novels. Buchan wrote and rewrote a biography of the Marquis of Montrose, the seventeenth-century Scot who was perhaps best described as a Presbyterian Cavalier—the same coincidence of qualities that lends Andrew Lownie's new biography its subtitle. And when put in charge of British propaganda during World War I, he made space for something more than a footnote in history by recommending that the American journalist Lowell Thomas go and see T. E. Lawrence. Buchan and Lawrence became close after the war; they shared an interest in the classics and an admiration for Montrose. But their concepts of asceticism and mortification were more discrepant than Buchan can possibly have guessed.

Buchan used to be far more readily acknowledged as the father of the spy thriller than he is today. Reviewing his last novel, Sick Heart River, in 1940, Graham Greene wrote, "What is remarkable about these adventure-stories is the completeness of the world they describe." He also pointed out that Buchan was the first to realize "the enormous dramatic value of adventure in familiar surroundings happening to unadventurous men ... the death that may come to us by the railings of the Park." And the impress of Buchan on Greene's early work is plain enough. However, when Greene came to write his memoir Ways of Escape, forty years later, he recorded that by the time he sat down to begin This Gun for Hire, he "could no longer get the same pleasure from the adventures of Richard Hannay."

More than the dialogue and the situation had dated: the moral climate was no longer that of my boyhood. Patriotism had lost its appeal, even for a schoolboy, at Passchendaele ... It was no longer a Buchan world.

This is a less persuasive account of disillusionment than it appears on the surface. Buchan's most celebrated thrillers were written and published during the awfulness of World War I and the reaction to it that set in: The Thirty-Nine Steps in 1915, Greenmantle in 1916, and Mr. Standfast in 1919. The conflict is not presented as straightforwardly Manichaean: gallantry is attributed to Germans and to Turks. Moreover, it was a fact of Buchan's life that he had many friends among the Red and anti-imperialist leaders on the proletarian Clydeside, and that he tried to do honor to these antagonists both in his novels and in his public speeches. Even when the spy genre itself became a near synonym for cynicism, John le Carré had his George Smiley adopt the nom de guerre "Mr. Standfast"—and he would not, I think, take refuge in the claim that the name comes from Pilgrim's Progress in the first place. Buchan took Bunyan as a pattern in much of his writing, and his fine autobiography, Memory Hold-the-Door, was published in North America under the title Pilgrim's Way. It has been almost forty years since the first biography, by the Scottish writer Janet Adam Smith, was published; this more recent effort, by another Scot, is intended to acquit Buchan of charges of bigotry and also of obsolescence. (Mr. Lownie is in some respects as straight-faced and innocent as his subject: he records with perfect gravity that in 1931 Buchan agreed to become president of the Federation of University Conservative and Unionist Associations, a body with initials that were not amended for some years.)

As Lownie points out, one respect in which this is more a "Buchan world" than the formerly up-to-date might be willing to credit is this: Buchan understood very early that the United States would become the decisive actor. The rather cardboard American who comes to Hannay's aid in Greenmantle, a fat and rich but nonetheless brave and humorous figure named John Scantlebury Blenkiron, is included for no other purpose than to make this point. As Canada's governor-general in the late 1930s, Buchan made every attempt to establish cordial relations with President Franklin Roosevelt. (It was a contradiction in this posture that he disliked Winston Churchill and tended to favor appeasement, but it's also clear that his dread of a second world war was conditioned above all by the shudder he experienced when contemplating the first one.)

Like Greene and Evelyn Waugh and many others of the period, Buchan has been accused of anti-Semitism. Two defenses have frequently been offered in these cases: that the alleged anti-Semite harbored a prejudice no greater than was commonplace at the time, and that he had many Jewish friends. A third possibility—that the offending words are uttered by fictional characters and not by the author—is sometimes canvassed. None of these will quite do in Buchan's case. It's not merely that anti-Jewish clichés occur in his books; it's that they occur so frequently. The usual form they take is a reference to Judeo-Bolshevism—the sympathy of Jews, even rich ones, for the Russian Revolution. That, however, might be described as political anti-Semitism, just as Buchan's energetic support for the early Zionist movement might be called political philo-Semitism. Paradoxically, perhaps, Buchan greatly disliked as a person the most anti-Jewish and pro-Zionist figure of his day, Arthur Balfour. Indeed, Balfour was the basis for the villain Andrew Lumley in Buchan's first thriller, The Power House. I mention this for two reasons. First, the book describes an invisible, string-pulling, sinister secret government, but one run by English lords and financiers rather than exotic or cosmopolitan types. Second, Buchan openly admitted that his model in the writing of it (he called the novel "a tribute at the shrine of my master in fiction") was E. Phillips Oppenheim, whom he further described —in an instance, perhaps, of trying too hard—as "the greatest Jewish writer since Isaiah." In "The Grove of Ashtaroth" the friend for whom the purgative enterprise is undertaken is a man described by the narrator as a Jew trying to "pass," who because of his ancestry is vulnerable to the delicious temptations of strange gods. This is excessive on Buchan's part, and arguably a "transferred" aspect of that very element in himself: the element of the mystical and the bizarre that the Scots call "fey."

The same ambivalence can be detected in Greenmantle, which is certainly his masterpiece. Here the subject is jihad. As a wartime propaganda officer, Buchan was fascinated by the ability of Germany to use its Turkish allies to enlist Muslim sentiment against the British Empire. The words of Sir Walter Bullivant with which I opened occur in their context thus:

"Though the Kaiser proclaims a Holy War and calls himself Hadji Mohammed Guilliamo, and says the Hohenzollerns are descended from the Prophet, that seems to have fallen pretty flat. The ordinary man again will answer that Islam in Turkey is becoming a back number, and that Krupp guns are the new gods. Yet—I don't know. I do not quite believe in Islam becoming a back number ... The Syrian army is as fanatical as the hordes of the Mahdi. The Senussi have taken a hand in the game. The Persian Moslems are threatening trouble. There is a dry wind blowing through the East, and the parched grasses wait the spark. And that wind is blowing towards the Indian border."

Despite this Whitehall Orientalism, when Hannay gets out into the field he is astonished to find his gallant friend Sandy Arbuthnot—the ideal blend of Scots daredevil and Gunga Din special agent—half convinced that the Muslim zealots are in the right.

"The West knows nothing of the true Oriental. It pictures him as lapped in color and idleness and luxury and gorgeous dreams. But it is all wrong ... It is the austerity of the East that is its beauty and its terror ... They want to live face to face with God without a screen of ritual and images and priestcraft."

This capacity for vicarious identification—even imaginative sympathy—was Buchan's most sterling quality as a man and as an author. And it was in order to ignite the spark of Islam pre-emptively, so to speak, and to set the parched Eastern grasses afire in a way that the Ottoman Empire did not expect, that Lawrence was sent to Arabia in the first place. So we do indeed inhabit a world partly shaped by a dogged Scots puritan, and we may even discover—or rediscover—that Buchan's invocations of grit and pluck and hardihood are not as mockably retrograde as all that.

​When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.