By Trevor Busch
As all of us grapple with the trials and tribulations of a global pandemic, many are seeking out ways and means of entertainment now that the beer taps have gone dry, the movie reels have ticked off their final frames, and the bustling coffee shops have gone silent. While it would probably be anathema for much of the page-turning public to even consider plying the waters of such weighty classics as Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) or skipping along 19th century London streets with Dickens in David Copperfield (1850), there is no doubt reading has been a pastime that has seen a definite revival.
And while many may have their radar focused on more casual fare, there’s only one genre that centers the attention of the hopeless bibliophile when viral infections start spreading their fear and disarray in a global fashion: early 20th century British espionage fiction. While I can picture the mixture of bemused grins and stultifyingly blank stares elicited by the latter statement, let me state for the record that no one has ever accused me of fostering an under-abundance of melodrama in my writing style.
And before moving on, let’s be clear we’re not talking James Bond here: before Ian Fleming, there was John Buchan and The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915).
A deliberately light and escapist spy thriller, what Buchan termed a “shocker”, The Thirty-Nine Steps is a novella that introduces us to Buchan’s most famous character, Richard Hannay, who would go on to star in more of the author’s espionage and invasion fiction, such as Greenmantle (1916) and Mr. Standfast (1919). Hannay gets caught up in a dramatic race against a German plot to devastate the British war effort, eluding police and spy-ring alike in an epic game of cat-and-mouse across the Scottish moors, and stylishly outwitting his dastardly foreign enemies. Along the way, Buchan gives us cipher code-cracking, murders, motor-cars and monoplanes as we follow Hannay to the very foot of the mysterious thirty-nine steps.
Buchan’s style isn’t one that a reader should seek out if they’re interested in copious detail or smoldering character development over hundreds of pages. At less than 100 pages, the novella is designed to be a breezy adventure almost in the vein of Kidnapped (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson. Hannay even self describes as a “very ordinary fellow” caught up in something beyond his own imagining. Surprisingly readable for an early 20th century British novel, The Thirty-Nine Steps could serve to fire the imagination of one aged nine or 90 — it has a little something for everyone.
The genre itself — in our case restricted to pre-WWI British espionage and invasion fiction, which would later spawn the more classic and so-called “spy novel” — is relatively microcosmic and has very few entries of anything resembling literature worth remembering. At the time in the lead up to WWI, there were underlying fears in the British public — and military — that Europe’s twisted series of alliances could possibly prompt a covert (or not so covert) German amphibious invasion of Britain’s southern coasts.
Naturally, authors picked up on this palpable fear and stoked it through their fiction. Originators included William Le Queux and E. Phillips Oppenheim, whose serialized magazine novels became the most widely read and successful British spy epics, and especially invasion themes. However, their prosaic style and formulaic stories, produced voluminously between 1900 and 1914, proved of low literary merit — in a sense, some of the first pulp fiction.
But the term “spy novel” was really defined in one of the true classics of this genre and time period: The Riddle of the Sands (1903) by Irish author Erskine Childers. The novel — which became hugely popular in Britain and is still widely read today — describes amateur spies who discover a plot to invade Britain while sailing through the Dutch Frisian coastal islands, and has all the hallmarks and touchstones that would be familiar to enthusiasts of spy and espionage fiction today. Its success created a market for the invasion literature subgenre, which was flooded by imitators, among them John Buchan.
One of the curiosities of Childers’ novel — beyond its fascination for nautical types and sailing clubs, and the fact that he wrote few others — is that Childers’ own personal history is almost as exciting as the novel he penned, involving all manner of espionage and flip-flopping loyalties, and includes a son who would later become president of Ireland, Erskine Hamilton Childers.
Despite an early connection and devotion to the British Empire, which included service in the Boer War, during the early months of WWI Childers was involved in running German guns for the Irish Volunteers movement that would later be used against British soldiers in the Easter Rebellion of 1916.
At the same time, he was also serving in the British military throughout the Great War. Childers would later become deeply involved in the Irish Civil War that followed, and in 1922 he was arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to death in a military court for possession of a small pistol. He was executed by firing squad in November 1922.
Buchan was as much an outsider as the Anglo-Irish republican, and regarded him as something of a kindred spirit. After Childers’ execution by an Irish Free State firing squad, he would write that “no revolution ever produced a nobler or purer spirit.”
Nominally a lawyer but more practically a writer, Buchan became heavily involved in the publishing word in the lead up to WWI. Yet despite having little formal training or much previous experience — and here is where something of the mystery of his life appears — he would be drafted into real-world espionage during the war, working in intelligence and propaganda for the Foreign and War Offices.
Buchan would finish out the war as Director of Intelligence of the Ministry of Information, at the very centre and core of the British secret service and one of the architects of their propaganda campaign against Germany. Hardly surprising, then, that the spy who came in from the cold would pen espionage fiction.
And of course there is a footnote of Canadiana to consider here in the course of Buchan’s life. Some from previous generations in Canadian classrooms which professed a more slavish devotion to memorization and rote learning might have had to recite long lists of previous governor-generals. Among them were John Buchan. Created Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsfield, he ended his life as Governor-General of Canada, dying unexpectedly in Montreal in February 1940.
An exciting spy-epic which helped launch the genre that brought us the likes of John le Carré, Frederick Forsyth, and Robert Ludlum, Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps is an adventure into the past and essential reading for anyone interested in the origins of espionage and spy fiction.
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