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John Buchan led a truly extraordinary life: he was a diplomat,
soldier, barrister, journalist, historian, politician, publisher, poet
and novelist. He was born in Perth in 1875, the eldest son of a Free
Church of Scotland minister, and educated at Hutcheson’s Grammar School
in Glasgow. He graduated from Glasgow University then took a
scholarship to Brasenose College, Oxford. During his time there –
‘spent peacefully in an enclave like a monastery’ – he wrote two
In 1901 he became a barrister of the Middle Temple and a private secretary to the High Commissioner for South Africa. In 1907 he married Susan Charlotte Grosvenor; they had three sons and a daughter. After spells as a war correspondent, Lloyd George’s Director of Information and a Conservative MP, Buchan – now Sir John Buchan, Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsfield - moved to Canada in 1935 where he had been appointed Governor-General.
Despite poor health throughout his life, Buchan’s literary output was remarkable – thirty novels, over sixty non-fiction books, including biographies of Sir Walter Scott and Oliver Cromwell, and seven collections of short stories. In 1928 he won the prestigious James Tait Black Memorial Prize, Britain’s oldest literary prize for his biography of the Marquis of Montrose. Buchan’s distinctive thrillers – ‘shockers’ as he called them – were characterised by suspenseful atmosphere, conspiracy theories and romantic heroes, notably Richard Hannay (based on the real-life military spy William Ironside) and Sir Edward Leithen. Buchan was a favourite writer of Alfred Hitchcock, whose screen adaptation of The Thirty-Nine Steps was phenomenally successful.
John Buchan served as Governor-General of Canada until his death in 1940, the year his autobiography Memory Hold-the-door was published. His last novel Sick Heart River was published posthumously in 1941.
A favourite book of August 2010 Guest Editor Graham Marks, who explains his inspiration: "Erskine Childers’ Riddle of the Sands and John Buchan’s Greenmantle were two books I read when I was 11 or 12 years old and which have never left me. They were both written very early in the 20th century and are where the whole spy fiction genre started; I loved the way both these writers spun complex, intricately–plotted and nail-biting tales that you couldn’t put down. I still love reading books like that, and they’re what I attempt to write."
A classic spy thriller, chosen by February 2011 Guest Editor Tim Bowler: "I read this when I was thirteen and it's the first book that showed me what a good thriller can do. From its taut opening where the frightened Scudder begs Hannay for help only to be stabbed to death by an unseen hand, the tension never lets up. Chase follows chase with the net closing ever more tightly all the way to the final chapter where Hannay confronts his enemies and looks into the 'inhuman luminosity' of their leader's eyes. A classic thriller and one of my all-time favourites."
Richard Hannay is bored with life in London. Then he discovers a horrible crime, and finds himself in the middle of a clever and frightening plot. Can he find the proof he needs to save Great Britain from disaster? When Hannay hides out on the wild Scottish moors, will he escape from the dangerous gang who want to silence him forever? Who can he trust on his journey? Time is running out for Hannay and his friends. Will he be able to discover the secret of the thirty-nine steps before it is too late?
Richard Hannay''s ennui comes to an abrupt end when a murder is committed in his flat. Only a few days before the dead man had revealed to him an assassination plot which would have terrible consequences for international peace.'
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