HAS SOME SCHOUNDREL been fomenting a holy war in Turkey? Can the dastardly plot to do in the Greek Premier be foiled? Is the hated Boche all cranked up to subvert Mesopotamia? Yes, yes, and yes. The thing to do, as many a British reader from 15 to 50 knows, is call in Richard Hannay. At least that is what old Sir Walter Bullivant at the Foreign Office always did. and with the most heartening results for both the interests of Old England and the greater glory of a sandpiper-sized Scottish scrivener named John Buchan. A soldier, a respected historian, Member of Parliament and, finally (as Lord Tweedsmuir) British Governor General of Canada, Writer-Statesman Buchan died in 1940. But lionhearted Dick Hannay and dozens of other Buchan characters, whose World War I and between-wars exploits fill a score of volumes, go marching on, most recently in four books just released in the U.S. in paperback editions.
Out of the Doldrums. Buchan began writing in 1895 and produced scholarly biographies of Scott and Oliver Cromwell, as well as a 1,500,000-word account of World War I. But his apparently secure niche in literary history depends on the oldest storytelling skill in the world: the ability to transport recognizable people to exotic places, place them in jeopardy, and bring them back alive.
The schoolboy hero of Buchan's The Magic Walking Stick finds a cane that, properly twirled by the owner, twirls him from the doldrums of home to far-off times and places. In The House of the Four Winds (which along with Castle Gay is part of a trilogy about a retired Glasgow grocer named Dickson McCunn), Buchan plunks assorted Britons smack dab in the middle of a palace revolution in Evallonia, a small, turbulent European state north by east from Ruritania.
Girls, Seldom. In all of this, Buchan is to present-day international-chase writers what Henry Ford was to the mass-produced automobile. Everything he started is still going strong, from the cross-country chase in a purring Bentley to the use of arcane skills (like the ability to get along in colloquial Kurdish) to extricate the hero from a sticky situation. Richard Hannay, an ex-brigadier and a onetime mining engineer first seen in The Thirty-Nine Steps, speaks Afrikaans and German, turns out to be a dead shot with a captured Mauser, describes himself as "tough as a sjambok." (Most Buchan readers know what a sjambok is.) Hannay's American crony, John S. Blenkiron, drinks nothing but boiled milk (to placate his seething "duodenum"), bursts out with John Brown's Body when things look darkest, but is matchless at diagnosing the nefarious geopolitical logic behind any dirty work at the crossroads of the world. Grizzled old Boer and ex-Guide Peter Pienaar, who "could track a tsessebe in thick bush" (Buchan readers know what a tsessebe is* footnote), turns out to be most useful in Greenmantle as a messenger. He slithers silently through Turkish lines and brings news of Turkish weak spots to the Grand Duke commanding the Russian forces. Because it is Buchan, the Grand Duke turns out to have hunted lions with Peter on the veld back in '98.
Spoor & Spurn. What is most striking about Buchan's heroes, for modern readers at least, is their now archaic innocence and idealism of word and deed. Modeled on Buchan's Oxford friends and fellow World War I officers, they were created in a time when aristocratic and gentlemanly virtues were still fashionable and younger sons sought fame at the four corners of the world. For them, the trail of anything, even an idea, is always a "spoor." Girls, when they appear, and they appear seldom, are customarily wholesome and boyishly slim. Men are lean and shy (of sex and praise, anyway).
In Greenmantle, for instance, another Hannay pal called Sandy Arbuthnot spurns the passionate advances of a fetching but fell lady spy named Hilda von Einem. "You must know, Madam," he says as bullets whiz about them, "that I am a British officer." Nowadays such behavior is hopelessly out of all fashion, literary and otherwise.
But it has a considerable charm, partly, one suspects, because Buchan would so clearly have behaved that way himself, partly because it offers a refreshing change from the satirical cynicism of today's crop of international gumshoes.
(Imagine James Bond rejecting a dish like that!) Buchan dealt in other literary coinage—glints of dry Scots humor, an eloquent fondness for the British countryside, the straightforward invocation of courage and comradeship in danger. The face on the coin is Victorian, but it rings true.