John Buchan

By: Joshua Glenn
August 26, 2014


Upon graduating from Oxford, JOHN BUCHAN (1875–1940), the son of a Calvinist minister from eastern Scotland, went into government administration in British South Africa — near the end of the Boer War, an edifying experience. Returning to London, he went into publishing and journalism. Prester John, a thrilling 1910 adventure set in South Africa, was the prolific author’s ninth book; he’d write more than 30 novels, eventually, and twice as many works of nonfiction. He went to work for the British War Propaganda Bureau during World War I, and in 1915, with the publication of the Richard Hannay espionage “shocker” The Thirty-Nine Steps, Buchan’s career as one of the three greatest adventure writers of the Nineteen-Teens was launched. Like Edgar Rice Burroughs and Jack London, Buchan’s prose juxtaposes realistic hunted-man chases, violent weather, and hand-to-hand combat with fantasy and atavistic (alas, usually racist) elements. The Richard Hannay series is his best work: In Greenmantle (1916), which is set during WWI, Hannay investigates rumors of an uprising in the Muslim world; and in 1919’s Mr. Standfast, written while Buchan was an officer in the Intelligence Corps, Hannay goes undercover — as a pacifist! — in search of a German agent at large in Britain. After the war, Buchan became a Member of Parliament, and continued to publish two or three books per year. Of these, Huntingtower (1922), in which a Scottish grocer rescues a Russian princess from Bolsheviks, the 1924 Hannay adventure The Three Hostages, and the 1936 Hannay adventure The Island of Sheep are perhaps the most rewarding. In 1935, Buchan was appointed governor general of Canada. Five years later, shortly before his death, he’d regretfully sign off on that country’s entry into World War Two.

READ MORE: Best Nineteen-Teens Adventure (1914–1923) | Best Twenties Adventure (1924–1933) | 60 Espionage | Best Scottish Fabulists | Shocking Blocking: Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of The Thirty-Nine Steps

SERIALIZED BY HILOBOOKS: John Buchan’s Huntingtower.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Barbara Ehrenreich, Julio Cortazar, Peggy Guggenheim.

READ MORE about members of the Psychonaut Generation (1874–1883).


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