Monday, March 25, 2013

I Spy - One More Time

This week I will be continuing with my brief - but hopefully not too superficial - look at spy fiction. Before starting this piece, though, it occurred to me that "spy fiction" or "espionage fiction" is generally regarded as a sub-genre of mystery, or detective, fiction. I am almost certain that many readers would disagree with that classification. Well, what is life, after all, without disagreements? Rather like an egg without salt, I would think. Somewhat dull.

So, I took the obvious route and googled "the first mystery novel", and came up with the inevitable Wikipedia page:

A number of the names there were new to me. One name I did recognise was Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet), although not in connection with the genre. His 1748 story, Zadig, which features a main character who performs feats of analysis, is considered to be an early example of detective fiction. Some names from the early 19th century were not at all familiar: E.T.A. Hoffman, Steen Steensen Blicher, Maurits Hansen and William Evans Burton. Burton is said to have been a direct influence on Edgar Allan Poe - for whom Poe worked for a period - and who is usually cited as the creator of the first real mystery novel, The Murders in the Rue Morgue; a book which also featured the first fictional detective, C. Auguste Dupin.

The spy novel dates back to about the same period, the early 19th century. The American James Fenimore Cooper penned two novels, The Spy (1821) and The Bravo (1831) that are considered to be early examples of the espionage novel. But it was the early 20th century that saw the genre - or sub-genre - take full flight. The socio-political milieu that fostered the growth of spy fiction was the First World War, and the explosive European situation that led up to it. In Britain, a major protagonist in what has come to be called "the Great War 1914-1918", The Riddle of the Sands, a novel by Erskine Childers, is regarded as a landmark entry in the sub-genre. The novel described amateur spies discovering a German plan to invade Britain. (A theme that would be repeated during and after the next great war, 1939-1945.) Two other writers whose names come forward at this time are William Le Queux and E. Phillips Oppenheim.

Which brings me to a novelist, John Buchan, that I am "studying" - a somewhat grandiose term for what is essentially a post-retirement recreation - in a six-week course on the spy novel at Ottawa's Carleton University.


            John Buchan                                   

Buchan had an interesting career and life. He was Scottish-born, and he started his professional life as a lawyer, before entering politics and Britain's diplomatic service. He was a private secretary to Alfred Milner, the High Commissioner for Southern Africa, Governor of Cape Colony, and colonial administrator of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. After the First World War broke out in 1914, Buchan joined Britain's War Propaganda Bureau, and wrote propaganda for the British War effort. As much war propaganda is often largely fiction - a trend that continues right up to the present day - this would have been a good training regimen for a writer of actual fiction, whatever the genre, whether espionage or mystery. With Buchan, though, the process was more or less the other way around. Before the Great War broke out in 1914, Buchan had already published his first novel, Prester John (1910), an adventure story set in South Africa. He was already well into the field of creative writing.

Buchan's most famous work is The Thirty-Nine Steps, a spy thriller published in 1915, but set just before the outbreak of the war.


The novel, as well as the Alfred Hitchcock film that followed in 1935, featured a Scotsman, Richard Hannay, a character that would appear in four more Buchan novels, two of them also set during the war. The Hannay character was based on one of Buchan's friends from his days in South Africa, Edmund Ironside, who was later Chief of the British Imperial Staff during the first year of World War Two.

The Thirty-Nine Steps can hardly be called great literature, but it is a lively read. A short novel, just 149 pages long, the book was written during and after a period of illness that Buchan suffered before the war. He writes in a preface to the book that he had "long cherished an affection for that elementary type of tale which Americans call the 'dime novel', and which we (in Britain) know as the 'shocker' - the romance where the incidents defy the possibilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible." Having read a number of such trifles during his spell of ill health, Buchan states that "I was driven to write one for myself. This little volume is the result..." And it is, indeed, a "little volume". It was also an enormous success.

As noted, in 1935 Hitchcock made a film of the book. Richard Hannay was played by one of Britain's best known actors of the day, Robert Donat - later to become famous in the 1939 film, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, for which he won the Oscar for Best Actor. The film - it was remade in 1958 with Kenneth More playing Hannay, and twice more after that - takes huge liberties with the book; not an uncommon fate for books adapted to the silver screen. In the book, the "thirty-nine steps" are actual steps, and integral to the plot; but in the film they become a code phrase for a German spy organisation. The 1935 film has great staying power; in 1999, it came in fourth in a British Film Institute poll of the best British films ever made.

I viewed the film recently on DVD, and to be honest it comes across to me - with my apparently jaded filmic tastes - as a comedy rather than a spy thriller. (Some of film's dialogue is deliberately very funny.) Happily, I can say that I am not the only one who feels that way about the film. Some five years ago, on a visit to London, I took in a theatrical adaptation of The Thirty-Nine Steps at the Criterion Theatre in Piccadilly Circus. It was a flat-out spoof of the 1935 film, and it was hilarious. (The same adaptation was presented here in Ottawa recently.) A quick check on Google tells me that the play is still running in London, a feat of durability which puts it right up there with Billy Elliot. Four actors play all of the parts from the film, including one amazing and very funny scene where two actors play four parts simultaneously. It has to be seen to be appreciated. Mere words would not do it jusitice.

All joking aside, though, Buchan's writing career presents us with an almost textbook example of the enduring literary maxim, "write what you know". His character Hannay, as noted, is drawn directly from someone he knew during his time in South Africa, and the book contains interesting references to that part of his life. Because he was so well connected to the political, diplomatic and military establishment of his day, Buchan's writing about the institutions and personages of the time, as well as the social context, ring true.

It must also be mentioned that Buchan wrote a great deal of non-fiction, and the list of titles greatly exceeds his fictional output. He was a scholar as well as a popular wordsmith.

Buchan went on to considerable heights in the British diplomatic service. In 1935, the Canadian Prime Minister Richard Bennett recommended to the British monarch that Buchan be appointed Governor General of Canada, the King's representative in the Dominion. (He had been earlier recommended for the position by Mackenzie King.) And as Lord Tweedsmuir, he was so appointed.


      Lord Tweedsmuir
     (aka John Buchan) 

Buchan served as Canada's 15th Governor General until his death in 1940. He died after suffering severe head injuries in a fall at Rideau Hall, the Vice-Regal residence in Ottawa. The fall was caused by a stroke. He underwent two surgeries at the Montreal Neurological Institute, both unsuccessful, and he died in Montreal on February 16th. After a state funeral in Ottawa, his body was cremated, and his ashes buried at Elsfield, the family estate in Oxfordshire, England.

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