‘The Power-House by John Buchan

First serialised in 1913 in Blackwood’s Magazine, The Power-House was published as a book in 1916. At a slim 110 pages, we’d call this a novella if newly published today but at the time of writing, it would have been considered a short novel. The Polygon edition has a very good introduction by Stella Rimington, thriller novelist and a previous Director-General of MI5.  Power House

There’s an interesting dedication to Major-General Sir Francis Lloyd, K.G.B. Buchan ends this by saying: among the many tastes which we share, one is a liking for precipitous yarns. What a lovely description of the kind of thriller Buchan often referred to as his shockers.

The Power-House is the first full-length adventure of Sir Edward Leithen, one of Buchan’s semi-regular series’ characters. (He first appeared in Space, a short story published a year earlier). Ned Leithen is a prosperous Scottish barrister and M.P, living in London, hard-working and unashamedly unadventurous. His daily life is a round of chambers, House, club and flat.

I was a peaceful sedentary man, a lover of a quiet life, with no appetite for perils and commotions.

In many ways he’s a forerunner of Hitchcock’s ordinary chap who gets mixed up in dangerous conspiracies – although Leithen is a gentleman, a pillar of the establishment who mixes in the best circles in London clubland and country estates.

The novel opens with a preface from an editor, a device Buchan sometimes used, presumably to distance author from narrator. The preface states that Leithen recounted the following events during a sporting trip to Scotland. When six male guests settled themselves in the smoking-room for a sleepy evening of talk and tobacco.

The tale is narrated in the first person. As Leithen leaves the House of Commons, Tommy Deloraine, a fellow M.P and old pal, tells him he’s setting off abroad. He’s hot on the trail of a friend who has disappeared after getting mixed up with strange company.

Leithen has a presentiment that trouble’s brewing at home in London and decides to be watchful. Shortly afterwards, he gets his first intimation of what’s going on and the game’s afoot.

Despite being concise in length, I’ve always regarded The Power-House as one of the great London novels. Buchan was the most wonderful writer of landscape, renowned for his lyrical description of wild Scotland but equally skilled at depicting pastoral England or the crowded capital in May.

Out of doors it was jolly spring weather; there was greenery in Parliament Square and bits of gay colour, and a light wind was blowing up from the river.

In thriller-writing it’s customary for atmosphere to be sacrificed to exciting pace. With Buchan, you always get both. He was superb at evoking the dull, secretive grey streets north of Oxford Street in London’s West End. In The Power-House, you can see the seeds of several ideas later used in the Richard Hannay shockers. He returned to this part of London with great effect in The Three Hostages, published in 1924.

One of the greatest scenes in The Power-House features an early example of Buchan’s exciting set-piece chases. A stunning piece of writing, for Buchan understood that peaceful streets and indifferent passers-by can be made far more menacing than the clichéd sinister settings of lesser fiction. I can’t think of a thriller writer better at screwing up tension by juxtaposing ordinary, cheerful detail.

This is also the first time one of Buchan’s lasting themes was introduced – the fragility of civilisation, its thin veneer separating us from world upheaval. We meet the prototype of Buchan’s memorable villains. Always a compelling adversary with a double identity, cultured and welcomed among the highest in society.

It’s worth remembering that the novel would have been thought out against a background of growing unease in Buchan’s political and diplomatic circles. The rise of Kaiser Wilhelm’s sea-power had inspired another great spy novel, Erskine Childers’s The Riddle of The Sands back in 1903. The Power-House is a snapshot of London just as the long Edwardian summer is disappearing. The lights are about to go out.

If Buchan has any flaw, it’s his over-reliance on coincidence but that’s something I’m more than happy to overlook – and all writers need it somewhere. We’re lifelong fans and think him one of Scotland’s finest ever writers. Buchan’s work was strongly influenced by Robert Louis Stevenson which is recommendation enough.

Sir Edward Leithen is perhaps not as famed as Richard Hannay though he features in several more novels and short stories, all of them wonderful. The Power-House is an unmissable first adventure.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “‘The Power-House by John Buchan

  1. Great review. JB is one of my favourite authors – did he know how to tell a story. And The Power House is one of my favourites. I have a lovely if slightly battered first edition I found in a bookshop on the island of Iona of all places!

  2. Hi Cathy, one of mine too. Your edition does sound lovely, battered just adds to the charm and what a magical place to find it. Old editions with happy buying memories are extra special. Anne.

  3. Peter Hoffmann

    Nice piece, thanks for sharing.You’re right about how effortlessly he captures place and time-one of the appealing aspects of his writing; spring is well to the fore in The 39 Steps too. His skill is probably generally unappreciated, especially given most of his writing is what’s put on the page first go, unlike most full-time writers who draft and re-draft; perhaps only Alexander McCall-Smith comes near in this respect. Here’s an extract from his autobiography to enjoy: ‘The procession of the seasons was now part of my life, as it could not be for a town-dweller, and to watch it gave me a keener sense of the rhythm of things. I enjoyed every type of scene and weather-autumn gales which blew down Thames from the Bristol Channel, the first snow clouds from the Chilterns, the long-lighted midsummer days when sunrise trod on the heels of sunset, the woods bathed in the clear radiance of April and alive with birdsong. Riding on winter mornings I would see the lights go out one by one in the villages of the plain, or returning in the twilight, watch them kindle, and reflect that I lived apart from, and within hail of, the sounding glittering world.’

    • Thank you, Peter. Buchan remains one of our favourite writers and it is pleasing to see him getting the recognition he deserves. A wonderful literary stylist – I can’t think of any other writer who can produce a great sense of place in so few lines. His autobiography Memory-hold-the-door is one of the best memoirs ever penned. Interesting that it was President Kennedy’s favourite book – thank you for the quote. I don’t think there’s a writer I like that I re-read so much as John Buchan. The books are as fresh as the day they were written. Thank you again,John.

  4. Pingback: The Power-House (1913) by John Buchan | crossexaminingcrime

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