REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:
JOHN BUCHAN – John Macnab. Hodder & Stoughton, UK, hardcover, 1925. Houghton Mifflin, US, hardcover, 1925. Reprinted many times, in both hardcover and paperback.
“… I don’t care a tinker’s curse for success, and what is worse, I’m just as apathetic about the modest pleasures which used to enliven my life … I tell you what I’ve got, It’s what the Middle ages suffered from — I read a book about it the other day — and it’s called Taedium Vitae. It’s a special kind of ennui … I find ‘nothing left remarkable beneath the visiting moon.'”
So speaks Sir Edward (Ned) Leithen, successful solicitor and political figure in the opening chapter of John Buchan’s novel John MacNab. It is a condition not unknown in England following the Great War. He’s suffering from the middle age blahs as well, tired of work, bored with play, sick of hunting and fishing, looking for something to enliven him to breathe life back into existence. Acton Croke (Buchan was superb at the naming of names of fictional creations and places), the surgeon Leithen consults, has a prescription for what ails him too: “If you consult me as a friend, I advise you to steal a horse in some part of the world where a horse-thief is usually hanged.”
Soon, with his friends Charles, Lord Lamancha, and John Palliser-Yeates, he will take up Sir Archibald Roylance’s offer of his house in Scotland at Crask (“Crask’s the earthenware pot among the brazen vessels–mighty hard to get to and nothing to see when you get there.”) and put Acton Croke’s prescription to the test, with the birth of the poacher, they call John Macnab.
Only in Buchan would a vacation involve physically and mentally pushing yourself to your very limits.
Most writers at the time did not tie their created worlds together, so that there is no mention of the Scarlet Pimpernel in Baroness Orzcy’s tales of the Old Man in the Corner or Lady Molly and the Old Man, or his Watson Polly Burton never meets Lady M, and Manly Wade Wellman aside, Sherlock Holmes and Professor Challenger might as well exist on different planets, moreso Brigadier Gerard.
True, Ayesha runs into Allan Quatermain, but then it was almost impossible for anyone to not run into Quatermain in Haggard’s fiction, even if it was only in a vivid dream. Edgar Rice Burroughs does have Tarzan visit Pellucidar, but he never meets David Innes, and all his fiction is only loosely tied by Jason Gridley and his Gridley wave by which they communicate their tales to Burroughs.
The Count of Monte Cristo never casually thinks about the Three Musketeers; Jane Austen’s heroines don’t seem to be overly neighborly, Pride never meets Senibility; David Copperfield never stumbles across Fagin or Little Nell; Rochester never discusses brutish behavior and romantic lassitude with Heathcliffe.
But John Buchan’s creations inhabit the same world and class system. They literally belong to the same club (The Rungates Club, also the title of a collection of short stories where they share adventure tales). Richard Hannay knows Lamancha and Leithen and Palliser-Yeates, Ned Leithen knows Archie Roylance from Mr. Standfast and The Courts of Morning, Archie Roylance knows Dickson McCunn from Huntingtower.
It may be the most extensive shared fictional world of its time in that sense. Even in Sapper and Yates only one character connects the different worlds (Ronald Standish in Sapper, Jonah Mansel in Yates). Buchan’s world is unexpectedly cozy, if a bit tweedy and closed. It’s as if Lamont Cranston and Richard Wentworth both knew Doc Savage and belonged to the same club.
Crask is small, remote, and ideal for the game the three gentleman decided to play to treat what ails them, but not without complications. Archie has three chief neighbors in the region, Claypool, the Radens (cursed with daughters), and the American’s the Bandicoots. The three friends will write a letter to each of the landowners declaring their intention to poach on a specific night and time and sign it John Macnab and then set the game in motion.
In other hands, this would play out obviously. The canny old highlander would prove the most difficult, one of the trio would fall for one of the Raden’s daughters, and the American would show off a bad sport and have to be dealt with, but Buchan is too a good a writer for that, and while I won’t give too much away readers of Buchan know what a force of nature Janet Raden is when she becomes Archie Roylance’s wife.
In fact what sets this apart is how it plays with your expectations. Characters show depth and unexpected growth. Nobility sprouts in ignoble ground, and at the moment that John Macnab threatens to blow up in everyone’s face, a slip of a girl and a man of lesser class with an unexpected sense of honor and humor saves them all.
You might not think a novel about poaching would amount to much in terms of suspense, but you would be wrong. Buchan’s splendid feel for the outdoors, and especially the highlands, his characters almost spiritual connection with both nature and nature’s darker side, all make this as suspenseful and meaningful as any thriller.
Then the mist came down again, and in driving sleet Leithen scrambled among the matted boulders and screes of Bheinn Fhada’s slopes. Here he knew he was safe enough, for he was inside the Machray march and out of any possible prospect from the Reascuill. But it was a useless labour, and the return of the thick weather began to try his temper. The good humour of the morning had gone, when it was a delight to be abroad in the wilds alone and to pit his strength against storm and distance. He was growing bored with the whole business and at the same time anxious to play the part which had been set him. As it was, wandering on the skirts of Bheinn Fhada, he was as little use to John Macnab as if he had been reading Sir Walter Scott in the Crask smoking-room.
I’ve always thought of this in cinematic terms, an Ealing comedy though with a more extensive cast and across time. Basil Rathbone or Ronald Colman for Leithen, Patric Knowles for Lamancha, and Kenneth More for Palliser-Yeates, David Tomlinson for Archie, Jean Simmons or Glynis Johns as Janet, Edmund Gwenn as the gillie Wattie Lithgow, Margaret Rutherford for Lady Claypool with her yappy dog, and so on.
John Macnab proved popular and interesting enough that a sequel, and a good one, The Return of John Macnab by Scottish novelist Andrew Greig came out in 1996, a critically acclaimed work in which a group of friends set out to recreate the legendary John Macnab’s exploits in a modern setting. It’s a different and more serious work than the original but every inch its equal with its own splendid feel for the Scottish landscape.
This is a different Buchan perhaps than what you may know from the Richard Hannay series, different still from the more obvious humor of the tales of grocer Dickson McCunn and the Gorbals Diehards. The books featuring Ned Leithen, the most autobiographical of Buchan’s creations, are unique among his output: The Power House, the first modern spy novel from 1910 predating the more famous Thirty Nine Steps; The Dancing Floor a near supernatural novel about middle age romance and adventure; and Sick Heart River Buchan’s own rough country version of Hilton’s Shangri-La and an elegaic farewell to his readers, full of duty and sacrifice and the hard won rewards and cost of honor. Leithen is a far more complex character than Hannay as Buchan himself was.
John Macnab is not the best place to start reading Buchan, but it is a perfect place to end up. It’s a rare thing, an adventure novel full of physical action but little violence, a thriller where no one dies and nothing more important than a man’s honor and reputation is at stake, and a novel of ideas and heart about something as ignoble as poaching. It is a book well loved and appreciated by his readers, and one I wholeheartedly recommend you get around to, but only after some of the other better known works so you fully appreciate its charms.