John Buchan

John Buchan

John Buchan was a Scottish novelist, historian and politician who served as Governor General of Canada.  During World War I he wrote for the British War Propaganda Bureau and as a correspondent in France for The Times.

He was a prolific novelist who wrote for leisure and is considered the father of the spy thriller.

About John Buchan’s spy thrillers

His well known spy thrillers feature Richard Hannay, his all action hero, is an ordinary person who had a knack for getting himself out of trouble, and are set before, during  and after World War I.  His first Richard Hannay novel The Thirty-Nine Steps was published in 1915 and was a great success with the men in the trenches.

His Richard Hannay’s novels strength are how well he provides a sense of the World War I time period.  But this also made his novels harder to read compared to others I read on my Top 100+ Crime and Mystery Novels list.  We don’t have the same sense of patriotism and are less able to relate to the circumstances surrounding World War I compared to our knowledge of World War II.

This review of John Buchan’s work is a good introduction to his work.

My Struggles and Solutions Reading his spy thrillers

I wasn’t alone in my struggle reading these novels.  Others reported while his books are a fast read — they weren’t a fan.  Possibly a flaw of spy thrillers set during specific time periods?  Haven’t had this issue with other crime and mystery novels written decades earlier.  But I did wonder while reading John Le Carre’s ‘The Spy Who Came In From The Cold’ whether those born after the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall would relate to the story as well as myself who was born a few years after the building of the Berlin War.

I wasn’t happy that I struggled reading these stories as they do provide an insight into the sense of the period before, during  and after World War I.   I especially wanted to understand more as a result of the family memorabilia, and information I had read while researching family history, from the First World War.

My solution was I found radio dramas of The Thirty Nine Steps and Mr Standfast which I listened to during my daily walks that brought alive the novels and Richard Hannay.

The radio drama of The Thirty Nine Steps closely followed the story line of the original novel compared to the movie adaptations.

The Thirty Nine Steps

The Thirty-Nine Steps espionage thriller first appeared as a serial in Blackwood’s Magazine in August and September 1915 before being published as a novel in October 1915. It was the first of his five novels featuring Richard Hannay.  The novel is set during May and June 1914 when war is evident in Europe and is based on a secret organization, the Black Stones, plot to destabilize Europe.

John Buchan wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps while he was sick in bed with stomach ulcers.  The title originated from his daughter counting the stairs on the wooden staircase leading down to the beach at the nursing home where he was convalescing from his illness.

The novel is considered one of the earliest examples of “man-on-the-run’ thriller and it has been adapted into radio, film and for the stage.  There are four film versions and all depart substantially from the novel.  The original 1935 adaptation was directed by Alfred Hitchock.

The radio drama of The Thirty Nine Steps closely followed the story line of the original novel compared to the movie adaptations.


Greenmantle, published in 1916, the second novel featuring Richard Hannay was set during World War I and was written in John Buchan’s spare time.

I found Greenmantle harder to read than The Thirty-Nine Steps as the story line was harder to relate to.  The story is based on rumors of the Germans plan to use an uprising of Muslim to help them win the war.  Researching the period I discovered there had been an unsuccessful attempt to do during World War I.

I’ve managed to find a Greenmantle BBC Radio Drama from 2005 that I’m going to listen to on my walks.  The person who uploaded this radio drama describes Greenmantle as Buchan’s difficult second book but that this radio adaptation is excellent.

Mr Standfast

I cheated!  Listened to the Mr Standfast BBC Radio Drama rather than read the novel.

Set during the later years of the First World War Brigadier-General Hannay is recalled from active service on the Western Front to undertake a secret mission hunting for a dangerous German agent at large in Britain.

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