Stumbling on the steps to fame

BOOKS JOHN BUCHAN: The Presbyterian Cavalier by Andrew Lownie Constable pounds 18.95
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The Independent Culture
JOHN Buchan's most popular novel, The Thirty-Nine Steps, was published in 1915; his most commercially successful, Greenmantle, a year later. In a review of Greenmantle in 1916, The Bookman pointed out that in terms of career opportunities there was little to choose between Buchan and another author and budding statesman Winston Churchill, and that "the future of Mr Buchan is just as hard to predict as that of Mr Churchill." Winston Churchill, of course, went on to become arguably the most important Englishman of the 20th century. But what of Buchan?

The thin-faced eldest son of a Scottish Free Church minister, Buchan was 41 when The Bookman review came out. Before the First World War, he had been a reasonably well-known novelist. He ended the war a household name, his adventurous heroes setting the pace for thriller writers to come.

Yet Buchan's initial promise as an academic and man of public affairs - after gaining a First at Oxford and the presidency of the Oxford Union - never really materialised. Although Governor-General of Canada when he died in office in 1940, Buchan had spent many of the intervening years scratching at the doors of power, longing to be called to serve in the Cabinet and begging for some honour in recognition of his wartime propaganda work. On both these counts, he failed. Was he too ambitious, or not adroit enough politically?

On the face of it, you couldn't find a better candidate to answer those questions than Andrew Lownie. Both men were schooled in Scotland: Buchan went to Glasgow University and then Oxford, and Lownie to Edinburgh and Cambridge. Like Buchan, Lownie has been a law student, journalist, Conservative candidate, and has worked in publishing. He sits on the council of the Buchan Society, has edited collections of Buchan's poetry and short stories, and has written the introductions to several of Buchan's novels. Yes, Lownie would have been my first choice too. Yet his biography - the first study of Buchan in 20 years - is not entirely successful.

The book's strongest asset is its literary criticism. He is meticulous in exploring Buchan's non-fiction and poetry, as well as his novels, and a master at teasing out the themes that make Buchan's work so popular: the importance of success, the Calvinist's redemption through hardship, the healing power of nature, the infiltration of the mole in the pay of a wicked power, usually foreign. This last is crucial because it forms the root of thriller-writing over the past half-century.

Yet it is Lownie's analysis of Buchan the man that fails him and, ultimately, also the reader. Disturbing little snippets about Buchan's life emerge despite Lownie's efforts at ignoring them. Buchan was so close to his mother, for example, that he wrote to her every day for 50 years. His wife was given to taking long walks to assuage her loneliness and depression. One of his sons writes to another complaining of their father's "filthy eating and eternal boasting". Yet Lownie makes no effort to seize upon these observations and analyse them. Most of all, we almost never hear what Buchan himself thinks of anything.

Instead, Lownie's paragraphs are filled with lists of who came to stay and how they were related. And in the ensuing crush, a fine opportunity to understand one of our more fascinating heroes is lost.