John Buchan (1875 – 1940)

john_buchan_-_featured_author_-_reduced3The Right Honourable John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir, GCMG, GCVO, CH, PC (26 August 1875 – 11 February 1940), was a Scottish novelist and politician who also served as Governor General of Canada. Born in Perth, Scotland, Buchan was educated at Glasgow University and Brasenose College, Oxford, winning the Newdigate prize for poetry while a student at the latter. He had a genius for friendship which he retained all his life. His friends at Oxford included Hilaire Belloc, Raymond Asquith and Aubrey Herbert. Buchan at first entered into a career in law in 1901, but almost immediately moved into politics, becoming private secretary to British colonial administrator Alfred Milner, who was high commissioner for South Africa, Governor of Cape Colony and colonial administrator of Transvaal and the Orange Free State—hence Buchan gained an acquaintance with the country that was to feature prominently in his writing. Buchan married Susan Charlotte Grosvenor, cousin of the Duke of Westminster, on July 15, 1907. Together they had four children, two of whom would spend most of their lives in Canada. During World War I, he was a correspondent for The Times in France before becoming Director of Information under Lord Beaverbrook in 1917. After the war he began to write on historical subjects, and became president of the Scottish Historical Society. Later he was for eight years M.P. for the Scottish Universities, was created Baron Tweedsmuir of Enfield, and became Governor-General of Canada.

Inspired by thriller master E. Phillips Oppenheim, his career as an author was very successful, and he produced many well-known works, including Prester John (1910), The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), and Greenmantle (1916). The Thirty-Nine Steps later became even more famous when Alfred Hitchcock made it into a movie. He also wrote biographies of Sir Walter Scott, Caesar Augustus, Oliver Cromwell and James Graham, 1st Marquess of Montrose. His writing continued even after he was appointed Governor General. His later books included novels and histories and his views of Canada. He also wrote his autobiography, Memory Hold-the-Door, while in office. His wife was also a writer, producing many books and plays as Susan Buchan.

In recent years in common with many of his contemporaries, Buchan’s reputation has been tarnished by the lack of political correctness perceived, with hindsight, in his novels. However, in many other ways, his work stands the test of time, and he is currently undergoing a resurgence in popularity. This is quite in keeping with the high degree of proficiency that he exhibits as a writer and novelist par excellence. Buchan was involved with British Intelligence during the First World War and may have had an involvement later. He had a reputation for discretion. He was a friend of T. E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia) and played a key role in Lawrence serving in the RAF in the 1920s under an assumed name. (Excerpts from Wikipedia and Gadetection).

The John Buchan Society was founded in 1979 to encourage continuing interest in his life, works and legacy. Visit the website ( and follow the Society on Twitter ( and Facebook (

The Thirty-Nine Steps is one of the earliest examples of the ‘man-on-the-run’ thriller archetype subsequently adopted by film makers as a much-used plot device. In The Thirty-Nine Steps, Buchan holds up Richard Hannay as an example to his readers of an ordinary man who puts his country’s interests before his own safety. The story was a great success with the men in the First World War trenches. One soldier wrote to Buchan, “The story is greatly appreciated in the midst of mud and rain and shells, and all that could make trench life depressing.” Hannay continued his adventures in four subsequent books. Two were set during the war, when he continued his undercover work against the Germans and their allies the Turks in Greenmantle (1916) and Mr Standfast (1919). The other two stories, The Three Hostages (1924) and The Island of Sheep (1936) were set in the post-war period, when Hannay’s opponents were criminal gangs. [Though I understand that The Courts of the Morning (1929) is sometimes included in Buchan’s Hannay series given that the prologue is narrated by Richard Hannay]. (Source: Wikipedia).


(Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets, LLC. William Blackwood & Sons (UK), 1915)

From Wikipedia: The Thirty-Nine Steps is an adventure novel by the Scottish author John Buchan. It first appeared as a serial in Blackwood’s Magazine in August and September 1915 before being published in book form in October that year by William Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh. It is the first of five novels featuring Richard Hannay, an all-action hero with a stiff upper lip and a miraculous knack for getting himself out of sticky situations. The novel formed the basis for a number of successful adaptations, including several film versions and a long-running stage play.

Book Description: Adventurer Richard Hannay, just returned from South Africa, is thoroughly bored with London life-until he is accosted by a mysterious American, who warns him of an assassination plot that could completely destabilise the fragile political balance of Europe. Initially sceptical, Hannay nonetheless harbours the man-but one day returns home to find him murdered… An obvious suspect, Hannay flees to his native Scotland, pursued by both the police and a cunning, ruthless enemy. His life and the security of Britain are in grave peril, and everything rests on the solution to a baffling enigma: what are the ‘thirty nine steps?’ (Source: Goodreads).

The Thirty-Nine Steps has been reviewed, among others, at Past Offences, The Passing Tramp, and Books Please.

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