Tuesday, October 03, 2017

A new / old friend

by Rick Blechta

I clearly remember the first time I read John Buchan’s classic, The Thirty-Nine Steps back when I was 14. It was the first time I withdrew a book from the adult section of our village library where previously I’d used the children’s section in the basement.

I immediately fell in love with the romantic scenery of rural Scotland so ably described and the outrageous adventures of Richard Hannay as he attempts to avoid capture by a desperate trio of German spies (and the police) on the eve of the First World War.

Over the years, I’ve reread the book once or twice and introduced it to my sons when I bought it as an audio book for long car rides. Eventually I purchased a lovely illustrated version. However I loaned it to an author-friend who never returned it and claimed I never loaned it to him in the first place. (You know who you are!)

I ran across John Buchan again this summer while designing the Bouchercon 2017 program book. You see, he was also the 15th Governor General of Canada and because of that and his classic thrillers was nominated as this Bouchercon’s Ghost of Honour. In passing I mentioned to my wife that I really needed to get another copy of my favourite Buchan book. She immediately went off on Amazon to surprise me with a copy.

She purchased a used book published in 1935 (the original publication date of the novel is 1915) as the first novel in a four-novel compendium of Buchan stories from a re-seller on the Isle of Jersey. It finally showed up last week after a two-month journey to heaven-knows-where. It’s a small, thick tome covered in faded red cloth and I altogether love it.

But here the story gets really interesting. You see the original owner of the book had put his name and address at the front. He dated the book as 1/4/1947 and this reprint was from a 1946 press run, so I imagine the book was purchased new, perhaps as a gift.

In this age of Internet everything, I just had to find out where this man (boy?) lived. So I called up Google Maps and my wife and I spent a half hour deciphering the scrawl until we nailed down the address. Then it was on to Google street view to actually look at the house.

It is located in Birkenhead, Cheshire, just across the Mersey from Liverpool. The house we viewed on Google obviously dates from the time the book was inscribed. It’s a side-by-side duplex, one of many on the dead end road. Somewhere along the way it received a stucco and stone coating to make it look newer, but that was obviously years ago too.

Now in my imagination (in the left-hand bow window) a boy or young man sits reading the same story of daring-do I first read at 14 and perhaps looks out the window while imagining rural Scotland.

I did the same thing just this weekend looking out my window, thinking about visiting Scotland again.

But that’s another story.


Aline Templeton said...

Great post, Rick. I love your picture of the little boy reading Buchan. I like his books too, and those of his less well-known sister, O. Douglas, who wrote wonderfully well-observed gentle novels about small-town Scottish life.

Sybil Johnson said...

What fun to be able to find the house. I enjoy Buchan as well, though I didn't come across him until I was an adult.

Rick Blechta said...

I think it's so cool to be able to sit in my house and view a photo of the boy's house. I was actually interested that if I were visiting the UK (something I would love to do), I would have gone to this house to see it. The internet made it easy, and yes, I can so clearly see the original owner of my book, reading it in his sitting room or bedroom and imagining roaming the Scottish hillsides -- which I've been fortunate enough to do a bit, but mostly in Argyll rather than where the book is set.

Buchan's books are unfortunately occasionally "uncomfortable" to our modern society, being a product of their times, but The Thirty-Nine Steps is still a ripping good yarn.

Thanks for commenting both of you!

Anonymous said...

Have you considered joining the John Buchan Society? Or maybe you're already a member? Their website is


Type M for Murder said...

Great post. I love rereading the books of my youth. Most of them anyway.

Rick Blechta said...

blogcutter: Great idea! Thanks.

Unknown said...

Ah, memories. Years ago my husband and I read through all the Buchan books we could find (Thirty-nine Steps included, of course). On our travels through Eastern Canada, probably Nova Scotia (sorry, memory does not serve; you Canadians will be able to supply the correction) we stopped at a small museum which may have been Buchan's residence, a very nice homey place, well kept. A framed photo on a dresser showed John Buchan with his wife. Her features and expression were so forbidding and grim that our instant reactions were identical: No wonder he wrote escape yarns!

Rick Blechta said...

Could this be the museum/house you visited: http://www.londonpubliclibrary.ca/research/local-history/historic-sites-committee/buchan-house

It's in London, Ontario which is about 120 miles west of Toronto.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Rick, but I'm 99% sure it was in the Maritimes or somewhere along the St. Lawrence River. How I wish I could remember--it was many, many years ago.

Marianne Wheelaghan said...

Hi Rick, The Thirty-Nine steps is an oldy but goody. How interesting, though, that you were able to trace the original owner of the book your wife got you to his home! Gosh. It's added a whole new dimension to your reading experience. Simply fascinating!

PS: Aline, I did not know about Buchan's sister, O Douglas, I'll be looking her up.

Rick Blechta said...

*PS: Aline, I did not know about Buchan's sister, O Douglas, I'll be looking her up.*

As will I.