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The Buchan shockers are hard to pigeonhole as belonging to one particular genre of literature.

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They are not spy stories in the usual sense, or detective stories or adventure stories pure and simple. Nor are they based on imaginary worlds or bizarre experiences, though elements of the magical come in here and there. They have been compared to the James Bond books, and they certainly include plenty of expensive cars and other magnificent machines, which usually come spectacularly to grief. But Bond is a paid killer and a womaniser; patriotism does not obviously feature in his make-up.

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He was not alone in thinking and warning about that, and there are many even today who would agree with him. Against those nightmarish possibilities, Buchan champions the things he thinks best in British civilisation — education, gentlemanly and ladylike conduct, honesty, an adventurous questing, a self-sacrificing spirit and plenty of fresh air, long walks and cold baths. Could it be that these unfashionable virtues are what accounts for his enduring appeal? The Thirty-Nine Steps introduces the reader to Richard Hannay, a man of action who puts his own safety second to the safety of his country.

Like Hannay, Buchan was a skilled fisherman and hill climber, whose early career had been spent riding across the South African veldt in charge of agricultural policy and resettlement at the end of the Boer war.

John Buchan and The Thirty-Nine Steps - Telegraph

Later he served in military intelligence in France, and his account in Mr Standfast , the third of the Hannay novels, published in , of the operations near Amiens was based on personal observation and is said to be extremely accurate. He weaves his own later life as an MP and an Oxfordshire country squire into the final books of the Hannay series. Ironside made his military reputation in the defence of Amiens in and ended up as chief of the Imperial General Staff just before the Second World War.


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Similarly, Sandy Arbuthnot, the glamorous hero of Greenmantle, the second Hannay novel, is based on the explorer and soldier Aubrey Herbert, while in the same book Blenkiron, an American who has to live on milk products because of a stomach condition, has overtones of Buchan himself with his ulcer. And what villains they are.

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In addition to their strange eyes and penchant for libraries, they share an insatiable greed for power, a near-hypnotic control of large numbers of bad men and a kind of magical immunity, right up to the moment the end comes. Deep down they are cowards. The Graf von Schwabing panics during a Zeppelin raid on London and is shot by his own side while attempting to escape the horrors of battle.

Medina, the villain of The Three Hostages , when confronted on a Scottish crag appears to commit suicide. Only Hilda von Einem, the pale-blue-eyed northern goddess behind Greenmantle , has a heroic end, dying in a cavalry charge when her plans fall apart.

John Buchan and The Thirty-Nine Steps

He was called to the Bar — a bore — in Dolphins and flying fish followed the ship that left for Cape Town in September JB joined the Rand Rifles and served as a trooper, diplomat and intelligence gatherer. He rode a horse called Alan Breck through deserts of prickly pears, cactuses and wait-a-bit thorns. He suffered dysentery, sunburn, saddle sores and fevers.


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  7. Still, it was the richest and most beautiful wilderness in the world. After that, the pace slows. He became an MP in May , lord high commissioner to the general assembly of the Church of Scotland in , Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsfield and governor general of Canada in , and chancellor of Edinburgh University in An effective civil servant — with a rare imagination.

    Ursula Buchan makes a strong case for the books — more than of them — and their enduring appeal.

    Buy The 39 Steps

    His improbable marriage to a member of the aristocratic Grosvenor family means that this account of his life contains, at its heart, an enduring love story. Ursula Buchan, his granddaughter, has drawn on recently discovered family documents to write this comprehensive and illuminating biography. With perception, style, wit and a penetratingly clear eye, she brings vividly to life this remarkable man and his times. Both are integral to this excellent book in which Ursula Buchan has balanced her grandfather's public and literary achievements with his family life and internal tensions.

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