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Creator / John Buchan

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John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir, GCMG GCVO CH PC DL (26 August 1875 - 11 February 1940) was a Scottish novelist, historian and politician. Today, he is best known as the author of The Thirty-Nine Steps, the second of his then-contemporary thrillers (or 'shockers' as he called them). A prolific writer, he was the author of 28 novels and over 50 works of non-fiction. Despite ill health, in addition to his literary career he was also at various times a diplomat, a barrister, a journalist, the director of a publishing company, a wartime propagandist (rising to the position of Director of Information for the British government in the First World War) and a Member of Parliament before being appointed to be the 15th Governor General of Canada (for which he was ennobled on the insistence of George V), a position he held from 1935 until his death in 1940. As Governor General, Buchan was enthusiastic about literacy and the development of Canadian culture. After his death, he received a state funeral in Canada before his ashes were returned to the United Kingdom. His posthumously-published autobiography, Memory Hold-the-Door (Pilgrim's Way in the USA), is said to have been JFK's favourite book.

Several of his novels are set during World War I, most notably Greenmantle and Mr. Standfast (the former was published in 1916 and — somewhat surprisingly — features a sympathetic portrayal of the Kaiser). In addition to his propaganda work during that war (see above), he also wrote a 24-volume history of it which began while it was still in progress.

Books by John Buchan available today include...

  • The Richard Hannay novels
  • The Edward Leithen novels
    • The Power-House (1916) — originally written and serialised in 1913
    • John Macnab (1925)
    • The Dancing Floor (1926)
    • The Gap in the Curtain (1932)
    • Sick Heart River (1941) — published posthumously
  • The Dickson McCunn novels
    • Huntingtower (1922)
    • Castle Gay (1930)
    • The House of the Four Winds (1935)
  • Other novels
    • Prester John (1910)
    • The Path of the King (1921)
    • Midwinter (1923)
    • Witch Wood (1927)
    • The Courts of the Morning (1929)
    • The Blanket of the Dark (1931)
    • A Prince of the Captivity (1933)
  • Buchan's short story compilations like The Moon Endureth (1912) and The Runagates Club (1928) are long out of print; some of his short stories have since been republished under titles like The Best Short Stories of John Buchan and The Strange Adventures of Mr Andrew Hawthorn & Other Stories, while they also appear in various short story anthologies.

Works by John Buchan provide examples of:

  • Author Avatar: Like Buchan himself, Sir Edward Leithen, the protagonist of five novels, is a Scottish barrister and MP who moves in high society circles and enjoys fly fishing (that said, Leithen enjoys considerably better health - until Sick Heart River, that is).
  • Blithe Spirit: Katrine, the hero's love interest in Witch Wood, is a free-spirited daughter of aristocracy who tries to make things better for the hero and his parish (when she's not captivating him with her dancing and singing in the woodland).
  • Campbell Country:
    • "The Outgoing of the Tide" is a horror story set in a Scottish seaside village that involves witchcraft.
    • "The Watcher by the Threshold" is set in the Scottish highlands and involves demonic possession.
    • Witch Wood begins with a prologue set in the present day, in which Woodilee is a safe, modern village with a handful of quaint traditions. The rest of the novel takes place nearly 300 years earlier, where Woodilee is a cluster of hovels in the shadow of the sinister Melanudrigill forest, and the pagan rituals are far less innocent.
  • Character Overlap: Happens often in the novels set in the (then) present day. Sir Edward Leithen and Richard Hannay, his two most frequent protagonists, are both members of the same gentlemen's club — which gives its name to The Runagates Club, a collection of short stories which is the only book to feature both characters. Leithen encounters Hannay's friend Archie Roylance in John Macnab, and Archie in turn works with Dickson McCunn in Huntingtower and The House of the Four Winds.
  • Chaste Hero: Most of Buchan's heroes are shy around women.
    • Richard Hannay stops being this after he meets Mary Lamington in Mr. Standfast (they're happily married by the start of Hannay's next adventure, The Three Hostages).
    • Sandy Arbuthnot, having resisted the charms of Hilda von Einem in Greenmantle, is this until he meets Barbara Dasent in The Courts of the Morning.
    • Edward Leithen never marries.
    • In the historical novels, David Sempill (Witch Wood) and Peter Pentecost (The Blanket of the Dark) are basically this, as their love interests are both of the elusive sort.
  • Churchgoing Villain: Ephraim Caird in Witch Wood is a church elder and a wealthy farmer: outwardly respectable, but secretly involved in the worst of the black magic in the parish.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Buchan's novels, especially the 'shockers', are well known for their improbable coincidences; Buchan even declares in the foreword to The Thirty-Nine Steps that he regards them as a characteristic and necessary attribute of the genre:
    I have long cherished an affection for the elementary type of novel which the Americans call the 'dime novel' and which we know as the 'shocker' - the romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible.
  • Diabolical Mastermind: Quite a few of the villains:
    • Andrew Lumley in The Power-House is the highly intelligent leader of a shadowy international anarchist organisation which is plotting to bring down western civilisation.
  • Distant Prologue: Inverted in Witch Wood, where the prologue describes the village in the (then) present day, while the main action takes place centuries in the past.
  • Enchanted Forest: In Witch Wood, the wood of the title is the sinister pine forest of Melanudrigill, where the villagers perform pagan ceremonies.
  • Framing Device: Midwinter begins with the twentieth-century discovery of a manuscript that tells the protagonist's story, with the added bonus that it explains why a particular period of Samuel Johnson's life is missing from Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson (the time of the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion, to be precise). The story itself is the supposed manuscript, fleshed out by the discoverer for publication.
  • Funetik Aksent: Especially when it comes to Scots dialect.
  • Genre Shift: The Gap in the Curtain is best described as borderline Science Fiction and could actually be interpreted as five interwoven short stories rather than a novel; interestingly, although Edward Leithen is a character (used here as a Framing Device for the five stories), this one was left out of an omnibus edition of the Leithen stories which was published in 2000.
  • Good Shepherd: David Sempill, the protagonist of Witch Wood, and his colleague Mr Fordyce, are ministers who labour tirelessly for the good of their parishes. The kirk elders, on the other hand...
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Given that he was writing in the early twentieth century, Buchan has his moments - most notably, Richard Hannay is known to his friends as 'Dick'. One of his novels (first published in 1930) is actually called Castle Gay.
  • Historical Domain Character: A few.
    • Abraham Lincoln features prominently in the later chapters of The Path of the King.
    • In Midwinter, the main character is assisted by Samuel Johnson.
    • An elderly Bonnie Prince Charlie appears in the short story "The Company of the Marjolaine".
    • The Scottish Royalist leader Lord Montrose is a minor character in Witch Wood - which Buchan wrote while he was researching a biography of the man.
    • The Blanket of the Dark centres on a plot to overthrow Henry VIII, who appears towards the end. The main character, Peter Pentecost, is the (fictional) son of Edward Stafford, a cousin of Henry's who was executed for treason in 1521.
  • Ignored Expert: In Witch Wood, when a plague strikes the village, the characters with most experience of plagues try to do what they can to help — only to be condemned as agents of Satan who are trying to spread the disease.
  • Irony: Katrine in Witch Wood claims to know more about the plague than anyone in Woodilee, which is quite possibly true. But seen from the 20th century, her expert knowledge is little better than their village superstitions; her idea of protective equipment is a pomander of spices worn around the neck.
  • NaÔve Newcomer: Witch Wood opens with David, newly appointed as a Presbyterian minister, coming to the village where he spent his holidays as a boy and looking forward to the good he can do.
  • No Communities Were Harmed: Woodilee, the setting of Witch Wood, is based heavily on the village of Broughton in the Scottish Borders, where Buchan had a holiday home.
  • Officer and a Gentleman: Several of the main characters - Richard Hannay, Edward Leithen, Sandy Arbuthnot, Archie Roylance - serve as officers in the British Army during World War I.
  • Prophecy Twist: In The Gap in the Curtain, Professor Moe's visions of the future (which take the form of text from pages from The Times a year into the future) do come true, just not in the way that the people who take part in his "experiment" might think.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: At the conclusion of Witch Wood, Mark Kerr delivers one to the villagers of Woodilee and the church hierarchy about how badly they treated their minister.
  • Ruritania: A Central European country called Evallonia is a major plot element in Castle Gay (even though the action of that novel is set entirely in Scotland) and The House of the Four Winds (in which Dickson McCunn and others actually go there).
  • Scout-Out: While the Gorbals Die-Hards model themselves on the Boy Scouts note , they're not members of that organisation.
  • Spy Fiction: Although Buchan didnít invent this trope, he was heavily influential upon its development. The Beer, Martini and Bathtub Gin variants all have roots in the Richard Hannay novels.
  • Town with a Dark Secret: The setting of Witch Wood is the village of Woodilee, which at the time the novel is set (1644) has a reputation of being a stronghold of the Presbyterian faith. And any rumours of Satanic rituals conducted in the depths of the forest are dismissed as nothing more than vile libels.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: Witch Wood ends with a description of how the main characters of the book were remembered in subsequent centuries.
  • You Meddling Kids: The Gorbals Die-Hards, who provide invaluable assistance to Dickson McCunn in his adventures. He becomes their benefactor.