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John Buchan’s “Sick Heart River”

John Buchan’s last novel Sick Heart River is not a story of crime, nor is it a thriller. It is a novel of high adventure. But it deserves a mention on Gaslight Crime, because it is the final outing of his series hero Edward Leithen – in many ways the most interesting of Buchan’s characters and perhaps the nearest in temperament to the author himself.Sick Heart River by [Buchan, John]

Leithen made his first appearance in the short story Space and his first real outing in The Power House, which we reviewed a few weeks ago. His novel adventures include John Macnab, The Dancing Floor and The Gap in the Curtain.

Sick Heart River (sometimes known by the title Mountain Meadow in the USA) was first published in 1941, given to a world beset by World War Two. The shadow of that war hangs over this book, though it’s not in any way a novel of war.

John Buchan, in his role as Governor-General, had signed Canada’s declaration of war in September 1939, at a time when he would have been writing this book.

Buchan hated war and Sick Heart River gives a strong feeling of his known world falling apart.

He died, suddenly, in February 1940, just days after completing Sick Heart River and his autobiography Memory Hold the Door. But he had been in poor health for quite a time and much of this is reflected in the plight of his hero Ned Leithen.

Sick Heart River will never be our favourite Buchan read, but it is, in both our opinion, the finest book he ever wrote – a literary masterpiece.

It is also a book of admiration for the Canada he’d come to know and love during his five years as Governor-General, with wonderfully descriptive passages about the arctic and the people who struggle to survive there.

Sick Heart River is a novel about confronting death – something we all have to do and the prospect must have been very much on Buchan’s mind. In his early essay Scholar Gipsies, written when the author was probably not twenty years old, he writes of a friend dying of a slow disease, probably tuberculosis. A man who rather than succumbing to the traditional death bed, takes to foot to face death standing in the hills of the Scottish Borders.

“Face death standing” – the expression comes from a Roman emperor, Vespasian; in fact Buchan puts the quote in to Leithen’s thoughts in his novel – “He would die standing, as Vespasian said an emperor should.”

Leithen, survivor of so many dangerous situations, now faces death himself. Weakened by a gas attack in the Great War, he has tuberculosis. The health and strength he prided in having have fled. He is weakened, debilitated, and has just months to live.

Rather like the character in that early essay, Leithen decides to face death standing – to have one last adventure.

He is approached by the American John S. Blenkiron, a favourite Buchan character of ours, to seek out the missing Francis Galliard, a French Canadian banker in New York, who has walked away from his life and disappeared in the north of Canada. Taking a long journey, first to America and then on to Quebec, Leithen trails Galliard and his guide Lew Frizel into the great wilderness of the arctic.

This is not just a book about physical decline but about mental strain as well. Lew Frizel is obsessed with finding the Sick Heart River, a place that should be paradise but turns out to be anything but. It becomes clear that, in his obsession, Lew Frizel has abandoned Galliard. Finding both now becomes the task of both Leithen and Lew Frizel’s brother Johnny.

How they find them and what the quest does to them all is the theme of the novel. As Leithen progresses through a landscape of freezing ice and snow his health improves, he gets back his strength and his will to live. He begins to plan a quiet old age with the shadow of death removed? But is his escape from mortality realistic?

There are, in this novel, some of the finest descriptions of landscapes in Buchan.  His knowledge of the north came both from an official trip in 1937 along the Mackenzie River and the far north experiences of his son Johnnie who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company.

But the arctic, rather like the valley of the Sick Heart River, is not portrayed as a paradise. The North is given to us as a place of peril and decay, where the native Hare Indians are themselves sick and indolent – so mentally exhausted that they no longer want to bother to even save themselves by finding food and drink.

So Leithen, having achieved the first part of his quest, devotes his recovering strength to saving the Hares from themselves, providing them with food and shelter and giving them a reason to go on living. But there is a price to be paid for such magnanimity.

Sick Heart River is a novel of adventure as well as spiritual quest. A tale of a dying man making his soul and discovering what his life has been all about. But it is not in the least morbid. It is very much a tale of hope. A novel to make you think and consider what life should be all about.

Buchan projects his characters into the spring of 1940 – a spring the author was destined never to experience himself. Cut off from civilisation for many months, Leithen learns that the dreaded war has begun.

It’s interesting to me that many of the first readers of Sick Heart River, facing the prospect of death on a massive scale, must have dwelt on the same questions about mortality as Ned Leithen.

Buchan’s greatest novel has a message for us all.

 

 

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John Buchan’s “The Three Hostages”

In previous blogs I’ve looked at two earlier Richard Hannay novels by John Buchan. But “The Three Hostages” is very different from “The Thirty-Nine Steps” and “Mr Standfast”. It is more contained than the Hannay spy novels set during the Great War. Here the conspiracy is a criminal plot. And there is one prime villain, a member of the British Establishment. A gentleman about town, a member of Parliament, no less, a popular character on the London scene.

Today we tend to view politicians with considerable suspicion, supposing, fairly or unfairly, that most of them are lining their own pockets at our expense. Only in it for what they can get. Reading “The Three Hostages” you have to remember that Buchan lived and wrote during a more reverential age, when politicians were viewed as genuine public servants – there, even if you disagreed with their political stance, to contribute to what was perceived as the greater good. The idea of making such a man a sinister villain might have been a tad more shocking for the readers of 1924 than it is now.

This is very much a novel about the breakdown of society and order after the chaos of a world war. Quite topical when you think of the rise of Mussolini and Hitler in the reality of the 1920s.

I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying right here and now that the villain of the piece is one Dominick Medina. Buchan makes this obvious from almost the start of the novel.

The basic premise is simple. In order to safeguard his criminal conspiracy, Medina has kidnapped three hostages with Establishment connections. Before Scotland Yard can close the net on the criminals Richard Hannay has to find and rescue them all.

As with all good thrillers, there is a tight deadline and Hannay only has a piece of doggerel verse to work from as a clue.

Hannay, snatched from the peace and quiet of life as a country gentleman, is also put at a considerable disadvantage by falling victim to the sinister hypnotic powers of Medina himself. The scenes where Hannay becomes – or so Medina believes – his stooge are some of the most powerful that Buchan ever wrote. Buchan himself once expressed the great fear of what it must be like to find your mind being taken over, the horror of losing self-control. It might all sound far-fetched, but remember how characters like Hitler manipulated an entire nation, in a similar bout of near mass-hypnosis.

Unlike the earlier novels, “The Three Hostages” is rooted very firmly in London, though there are episodes in the Cotswolds, Norway and Scotland. In an early Buchan novel “The Power House”, which is rather unfairly neglected these days, we saw how cleverly Buchan portrayed the dangers of London, the sinister quarters of the city which lurk just below respectability.

Here we have a similar portrayal of menace. Buchan is as good at evoking shadier areas of Fitzrovia and Gospel Oak as he is the wild landscapes of the Highlands. There is a sense of claustrophobia in this novel – a feeling that the outdoorsman Hannay is also having to fight his surroundings as much as the chief villain.

Buchan also poses an interesting dramatic situation for his hero. How can Hannay have the freedom to search for the hostages and investigate Medina when he is at the beck and call of Medina for most of the time.

The author uses other familiar characters from the earlier novels to give Hannay moral and practical support. We have here the hero of “Greenmantle” Sandy Arbuthnot (now Lord Clanroyden), Hannay’s wife Mary, the airman Archie Roylance. Buchan reprieves the character of the German Herr Gaudian, from “Greenmantle”, an ally now in Hannay’s quest, rather than an enemy. A sympathetic German in English fiction in 1924 shows Buchan’s horror at what had just happened in the trenches. It was not a very fashionable viewpoint in a Europe where vengeance was the greater motivation.

As matters are revealed there is a dramatic conclusion in the Scottish Highlands. Perhaps the finest duel in thrillerdom. A chase and gunfight on a bleak mountainside.

Now as it happens I’ve just written a similar battle myself, where two men fight it out in the Scottish mountains, in my own thriller “Balmoral Kill”.

And I found it incredibly hard to do. I stand in awe of John Buchan who raised the bar so high that any attempt to do anything similar is daunting to say the least.

The only other writer I know who comes anywhere close is Geoffrey Household in his thriller “The Watcher in the Shadows” (see blogs passim), though his location is a meadow in the Cotswolds.

Buchan was so good at these sort of scenes because of his vast experience of mountain climbing in the Highlands, the long days out in all weathers. Buchan may not have had to fight personal tournaments in such places, but he knew the locations backwards. And it shows. I climb mountains myself and I’ve undertaken long walks in Scotland and elsewhere. I can vouch for Buchan’s veracity. No writer of Scottish fiction gets the spirit of place quite so right as John Buchan.

And it’s interesting that, despite Hannay being in this wider landscape rather than the disturbing back-rooms of Medina’s London, the sense of menace – of danger creeping ever near – never goes away. Buchan makes a mountain range seem almost as ominously claustrophobic as the shadowed streets of inner London.

And as Hannay is attacked mentally as well as physically we find ourselves previewing many of the thriller plots that came along later in the twentieth-century. Where the mind and spirit are subdued every bit as much as the body. Where the survival of the individual’s moral conscience is often very much in doubt.

“The Three Hostages” is probably the best constructed of all the Hannay novels – and I don’t mean that disparagingly, for the Hannay novels in total are a hallmark of excellence in the world of thriller writing.

But here Buchan had obviously considered the plot and the issues within for a long time before he took up his pen. He produced, in my view, not only a classic thriller but one of the finest novels of the 1920s. A state of the nation piece, which makes Buchan’s homeland, coming as it was away from the traumas of the Great War, a very uncomfortable place indeed.

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John Buchan’s “Mr Standfast”

In the Gaslight Crime blog of March 19th, I looked at John Buchan’s classic spy thriller “The Thirty-Nine Steps”, the first of his novels featuring his hero Richard Hannay. Today I want to look at the third Hannay novel “Mr Standfast”’

Although “Mr Standfast” is the third novel in the sequence (Greenmantle comes second) it is very much a sequel to “The Thirty-Nine Steps” – it concludes some of the outstanding matters of the first novel.

The novel starts in the summer of 1917, with Richard Hannay journeying to an idyllic manor house in the Cotswolds. Hannay, very much the amateur spy-catcher in his first adventure, is now a Brigadier-General, who has made his mark as a soldier on the Western Front. Suddenly he finds himself torn away from the trenches to participate in the old game of nailing a master spy and finding out how secrets are being sent from Britain to Germany.

It is a journey that takes Hannay from a English Garden City full of pretentious individuals to the poverty-ridden tenements of Glasgow. Then on a puffer steamer through the Hebrides before Hannay embarks on a long walk through the Scottish Highlands to the dramatic mountains of the Cuillin on Skye.

Buchan, a great walker himself, and a terrific describer of landscape, is at his best here. As a writer he had a considerable gift of summoning up Temenos – the spirit of place – in just a few words. Unlike a lot of authors, Buchan was no carpet-bagger when it came to backgrounds, particularly Scottish scenes. He had done all of these walks himself and in his youth was a rock-climber of some renown. The scenes in Skye are amongst the finest Buchan ever wrote. Nobody does it better.

But Buchan can write urban scenes as well. Hannay returns to London during an air-raid. He conveys very well the sense of shock in a city than finds itself under aerial attack – an unpleasant novelty for the people of England at that time. Then to the Western Front which Buchan depicts with great validity. He had been in the trenches and the dug-outs himself. Here we have some familiar though welcome Buchan elements; a sinister chateau, sudden and hurried journeys in the dead of night, the tales soldiers tell to stave away buried fears.

Then to neutral Switzerland where Hannay finds himself under cover once more. There is a description through a snow-bound Alpine pass which deserves its place as a classic of mountaineering literature – he captures the physical exhaustion, the sudden bursts of fear, the satisfaction that emerges when the climb is done, in a way that perhaps only a mountaineer can fully appreciate. Then back to the trenches for a thrilling, almost Wagnerian conclusion, where victory is achieved but at a terrible cost to Hannay.

In this novel we see a good example of what Buchan’s biographer Janet Adam Smith described as his “root-of-the-matter treatment”. Buchan takes a character and presents him at first unsympathetically, and at odds with the philosophy of his hero. And then he reveals aspects of the character which show a different side to that person, winning admiration. Here it is with the character Launcelot Wake, a conscientious objector to the war, holding views which are initially anathema to the warrior Hannay. At first it seems quite impossible that they could ever be comrades. Then gradually, over the course of the book, Wake’s real courage is revealed. We see him as a better rock climber and mountaineer than the skilled scrambler Hannay. A man who is prepared, despite his opinions, to fight courageously. The once unsympathetic character becomes someone Hannay can really admire.

Now in the 21st century, when our views on the Great War have become somewhat revised, we can side more with conscientious objectors. But when Buchan published the novel in 1919 the subject of pacifism, of men who simply refused to fight, was still almost too raw to be mentioned. That Buchan can go so bravely against a warlike dominant ideology and show both the martial and anti-war philosophies is a mark of a great writer, and that he can present a conscientious objector sympathetically is stunning given that it was written when the guns were still firing. The popularity of “Mr Standfast” as a novel may well have done much to create a better understanding of the wartime role of the pacifist in the immediate aftermath of the horror of the trenches.

For “Mr Standfast” is more than just a thriller. It looks deeply into issues such as courage. Hannay is no stock wartime hero. He often admits to very real fear, he recognises the bravery in others. His sympathy with the rank-and-file soldiers of a mostly working class army is portrayed as genuine and touching.

Hannay is what another thriller writer, Geoffrey Household, described as ‘Class X’. Despite being apparently part of the Establishment he can mix well and empathise with almost anyone, whether they be Clydeside ship workers, hill shepherds, private soldiers, or ministers of the crown and generals. It shows Buchan’s immense interest in people as individuals, rather than stock characters or folk penned into an artificial and quite ridiculous class structure. If he occasionally falls down to the modern reader with language that might be judged politically incorrect, it is because he was a man writing near a century ago, in a very different world with much different mores.

John Buchan famously described the Hannay novels as ‘shockers’, not intended to be taken very seriously amongst his wider canon of historical novels and straight histories. I think you can take humility too far. And I do wonder, in his heart, if he recognised just how good a novel like “Mr Standfast” really was?

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John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps

It’s hard to believe that John Buchan’s classic thriller “The Thirty-Nine Steps” was first published a hundred years ago, in October 1915, following a serial publication in Blackwood’s Magazine the previous summer.

John Buchan Country near Broughton

John Buchan Country near Broughton

John Buchan Country

John Buchan Country

The adventures of Richard Hannay as he is pursued both by the police and German spies across the lonely hills of Galloway and Tweeddale have entranced readers ever since. It is, without question, the finest chase thriller ever written (though, arguably, Geoffrey Household’s “Rogue Male” comes in as a close second.)

“The Thirty-Nine Steps” was written in the first months of the Great War. Many of Buchan’s friends were already fighting in France and Belgium, but Buchan himself was ill and confined to bed. He spent the time writing what was to become his most famous work, though he always referred to it as a “shocker”.

In his dedication to his friend the publisher Tommy Nelson, who was later to be killed in the trenches, he described his new book as ‘a romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible’ – a definition that Raymond Chandler considered ‘a pretty good formula for the thriller of any kind.’

And the pace of “The Thirty-Nine Steps” is terrific. It could have been written yesterday, with its immediacy and non-stop action. The fate of Richard Hannay has inspired hundreds of ‘innocent in peril’ thrillers ever since, both books and films. It has been, of course, an enormous influence on filmmakers, particularly Alfred Hitchcock who made an film of the book in 1935 – even if he did fiddle considerably with Buchan’s plot.

And on the subject of the film versions, there have been three. Hitchcock’s starring Robert Donat, a 1960 version with Kenneth More and a 1970s take – actually properly set in 1914 – with Robert Powell (who went on to play Hannay again in an off-piste but entertaining TV series). All three are enormous fun and worth seeing, but they do take quite a few liberties with the original. There was also a recent BBC TV film about which the less said the better!

Where Buchan is very good is in his spirit of place. A considerable walker in wild places, he captures the Scottish landscape in a way that no other writer ever has, exceeding the descriptive powers of even Scott, Stevenson and Munro. You smell the heather, feel the wet of the hill-rain, sweat under the sun of a hot day in the Borders. You experience the physically exhausting – though sometimes exhilarating – experience of the man-hunt, as Hannay is pursued from one adventurous peril to another. Buchan put his great knowledge of every corner of these Scottish hills to very good use.

For decades Buchan was dismissed as a very slight writer, but he had had a considerable re-evaluation in recent years. His stature as one of the masters of Scottish fiction has at last been recognised. And he has a real relevance to the modern world. “Greenmantle”, the sequel to “The Thirty-Nine Steps”, gives a take on middle-eastern politics that seems very contemporary and shows a deep understanding of much that confronts the world today.
I have lost count of the number of times I have read “The Thirty-Nine Steps”. I could probably rewrite it from memory. But how I long to set out again with Richard Hannay as he flees a busy London and begins his long chase across the Border hills from some lonely railway station in Galloway.

Since I first read the novel as a boy, I have come to know some of these hills myself and can vouch for the accuracy of Buchan’s descriptions. In many ways Buchan has influenced my own writing. I was as pleased as punch when a reviewer, very generously, compared my recent thriller “Balmoral Kill” to the works of Buchan.

If you’ve never followed the adventures of Richard Hannay through “The Thirty-Nine Steps”, “Greenmantle”, “Mr Standfast”, “The Three Hostages” and “The Island of Sheep” please do try them.

And if you can, in the centenary year of the “The Thirty-Nine Steps”, why not see if you can get up to the hills of the Scottish Borders and pretend, just for a delicious childish moment, that you ARE Richard Hannay, being chased through the heather by some sinister and very deadly gentry with guns.

You might also like to seek out a lovely book of essays on the novel by John Burnett and Kate Mackay entitle “John Buchan and The Thirty-Nine Steps”, published by National Museum Scotland. The website of the John Buchan Society is worth a visit too.

The town of Peebles has a very good museum dedicated to the life and works of John Buchan. And for a taste of Buchan country try walking the thirteen-mile John Buchan Way from Broughton to Peebles. You can download a route leaflet from the internet.

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