Now I saw how thin is the protection of civilisation. An accident and a bogus ambulance – a false charge and a bogus arrest – there were a dozen ways of spiriting me out of this gay, bustling world. I foresaw that, if I delayed, my nerve would break, so I boldly set off across the road.
– John Buchan, The Power-House (1916)
‘Ah, Mr Leithen,’ he said, ‘we meet again.’
– John Buchan, The Power-House (1916)
John Buchan had taken tentative steps into the territory of the adventure story with The Half-Hearted (1900) and Prester John (1910), and was going to make the genre his own with The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915). But it was The Power-House – serialized in 1913 – that was the first classic, the one that really marks the start of his rich vein of what he liked to call ‘shockers’.
It’s not exactly a substantial piece. At just 32,000 words, it’s barely long enough to warrant a volume of its own, but these few pages sketch out the basic plot that Buchan and his legions of followers were going to spend decades developing – a normal man plunged inadvertently into a thrilling adventure, playing for the highest stakes: life, death and the future of civilization as we know it.
Well, I say a normal man, but our narrator, 34-year-old Edward Leithen, is a Buchan hero – maybe the Buchan hero – so he is just a little cut above the norm. Though Scottish, he was educated at Eton and Oxford, and is already a successful lawyer and an MP, fast becoming a pillar of the establishment. Still, he’s definitely an amateur who finds himself caught up in a web of intrigue and action. And that’s the important bit.
Leithen learns that an old university friend named Charles Pitt-Heron has left the country in mysterious circumstances. In itself, that’s no great surprise, for Pitt-Heron was always a bit of an adventurer; indeed, he has precisely the same backstory as Lewis Haystoun in The Half-Hearted, ‘He was rather a hero for a bit after he came down, for he had made some wild journey in the neighbourhood of Afghanistan, and written an exciting book about it.’
But then other curious hints and fragments of information are discovered in a series of coincidences so wildly implausible that Leithen himself can’t help but notice. ‘The amazing and almost incredible thing about this story of mine is the way clues kept rolling in unsolicited,’ he reflects. And then he shrugs: ‘I suppose that the explanation is that the world is full of clues to everything.’ Buchan can be truly shameless sometimes.
Anyway, these clues, when they’re put together, suggest that something bigger and far more sinister is going on. Pitt-Heron, it appears, may have fallen into the hands of a clandestine organization known as the Power-House, which is engaged in ‘secret and forbidden things’, responsible for ‘the great secret wheels of what was too inhuman to be called crime’.
Quite what that means is never fully resolved, for the Power-House is a splendidly vague organization. At one point, we are invited to believe that it nurtures scientific and technological geniuses operating at a level far beyond the mainstream of civilization. ‘The nameless brains working silently in the background, now and then showed their power by some cataclysmic revelation,’ we’re told. Just to flex their muscles, they’ll stage all sorts of evil event: ‘a great calamity, a sudden breach between two nations, a blight on a vital crop, a war, a pestilence.’ This is, concludes Leithen, a collection of ‘diabolical brains’ aimed at ‘super-anarchy’.
We’re also told that it is a decentralized organization: ‘You do not want a Napoleon,’ explains a character. ‘All that is needed is direction, which could be given by men of far lower gifts than a Bonaparte.’ Which makes it sound much more like a revolutionary, cell-based structure, a prefiguring of communism perhaps. Except that this comment comes from the mouth of Andrew Lumley, who later turns out himself to be the mastermind behind the whole operation. And, he boasts, he actually is the new Bonaparte: ‘No man since Napoleon has tasted such power.’
Setting a tone for future super-villains, Lumley is a loquacious chap, much given to expounding his sub-Nietzschean philosophy.* He also has an unspecified role in public life, as someone explains to Leithen: ‘He’s not a politician, though he favours our side, and I expect has given a lot to our funds. I can’t think why they don’t make him a Peer. He’s enormously rich and very generous, and the most learned old fellow in Britain.’ So perhaps we’re in different territory here, not an anarchist organization at all, but a structure controlled by an evil genius bent on world domination. Lumley is, in effect, a trial run for Dominick Medina in The Three Hostages (and all his later imitators and rivals).
Certainly the Power-House is international, for Leithen learns from his friend Macgillivray of Scotland Yard (later to turn up in the Richard Hannay books) that it’s known in the German-speaking world:
I have forgotten the details, but it had something to do with the Slav States of Austria and an Italian Students’ Union, and it threatened at one time to be dangerous. Macgillivray’s correspondent said that in some documents which were seized he found constant allusion to a thing called the Krafthaus, evidently the headquarters staff of the plot. And this same word Krafthaus had appeared elsewhere – in a sonnet of a poet-anarchist who shot himself in the slums of Antwerp, in the last ravings of more than one criminal, in the extraordinary testament of Professor M— of Jena, who, at the age of thirty-seven, took his life after writing a strange mystical message to his fellow-citizens.
(That ‘sonnet of a poet-anarchist’, incidentally – that’s an inspired touch, ain’t it?)
The long and short of it is that we really have no idea what Lumley’s up to, how extensive the forces of the Power-House really are, or whether it truly has any advanced technological knowledge or not. Even so, Leithen’s life is clearly in great danger as he takes on a desperate mission to rescue Pitt-Heron from the clutches of Lumley’s minions.
One other thing is certain: civilization is under threat. Again, this is to become a commonplace of the thriller. The inherent fragility of our world is one of Buchan’s recurrent themes, outlined here. At one point Leithen says that civilization is built on strong foundations that ‘grow daily firmer’, and Lumley laughs:
Reflect, and you will find that the foundations are sand. You think that a wall as solid as the earth separates civilisation from barbarism. I tell you the division is a thread, a sheet of glass. A touch here, a push there, and you bring back the reign of Saturn.
And later, as Leithen finds the security of life slipping away from him, pursued across London by Lumley’s agents, he worries that the man might be right.
The year after this story was published, of course, the seemingly minor matter of a murdered Austrian archduke (‘a touch here, a push there’) brought back the reign not of Saturn but of Pan, which went on to unleash the twin evils of communism and fascism. It’s not hard to see The Power-House as an expression of the insecurity and fear that had nagged away at British popular literature for the last couple of decades – ever since, in fact, Buchan’s hero Robert Louis Stevenson had suggested that beneath the solid respectability of Dr Jekyll there lurked the demonic Edward Hyde.
Except that Buchan can’t suppress his optimism, his innate belief that British values will always come out on top. Or maybe it’s more than that. The word ‘values’ implies the usual roll-call trotted out by politicians when trying to define Britishness: honesty, humour, fair play, support for the underdog and so on. Which only takes us so far, because behind that there is something bigger, a philosophy of life, a faith in the organic, natural progress of society, if one only respects its evolutionary laws. As Leithen tells Andrew Lumley: ‘You call our civilisation a machine, but it is something far more flexible. It has the power of adaptation of a living organism.’ This is crucial to British culture, the belief in a slow wave of change, not in revolution, and certainly not in a mechanical view of humanity.
There’s a reason why Napoleon is the go-to comparison for characters such as Lumley and Professor Moriarty (‘the Napoleon of crime’, a title later appropriated by T.S. Eliot for Macavity). The entire French Revolutionary project is seen in British popular culture as a stark warning of how to do things the wrong way: from the wilful destruction of the social order, through the vainglorious attempt to impose a decimal calendar, right up to Napoleon’s attempt to build an empire as an expression of his will.
The British Empire, by contrast, had been put together piecemeal over a long period, in a series of often random and unplanned acquisitions. It wasn’t the creation of one man, it had no logic or coherent structure. Which is why Leithen – and, behind him, Buchan – believe that British domination of the world is the result of an attitude to life that was in tune with nature. That’s the point Leithen’s making with his understanding of civilization as ‘a living organism’. And it’s why Buchan creates a villain whose vast brain has conjured up a Nietzschean and Napoleonic masterplan.
This is the key psychological distinction in the classic British thriller: the conflict is between the good guys, who accept the essential messiness of humanity, and the diabolical super-villains, who think that the world can be subjected to an arid, rigorous logic, reinvented in their own image. It’s the difference, perhaps, between the imperial and the decimal systems.
‘You are a man of good commonplace intelligence,’ Lumley tells Leithen. ‘But you possess also a quite irrelevant gift of imagination.’ It’s the perfect balance for a Buchan hero. Intellectuals are always a bit suspect, a bit foreign, but a ‘good commonplace intelligence’? That’s okay. So long as it’s mixed with imagination and creative thought, not just blind duty. And, of course, there needs to be an ability to swing into action at a moment’s notice. Because a Buchan hero is required to be constantly on the move.
Leithen insists that he’s really not cut out for this role as a man of action: ‘I was a peaceful sedentary man,’ he protests, ‘a lover of a quiet life, with no appetite for perils and commotions.’ But that’s a little disingenuous, because he’s not entirely unathletic – he won the school mile at Eton, did some running at Oxford, and ‘could box a bit’; even now, he doesn’t mind putting the gloves on and starting the day with half-an-hour’s sparring practice.
Similarly, he says modestly, ‘I have never had the gift of the gab,’ which would surely be an impediment to his aspirations as a politician and as a barrister. Happily, however, this isn’t really true either. Here he is confronting the villain:
‘As I read your character – and I think I am right – you are an artist in crime. You are not the common cut-throat who acts out of passion or greed. No, I think you are something subtler than that. You love power, hidden power. You flatter your vanity by despising mankind and making them your tools. You scorn the smattering of inaccuracies which passes for human knowledge, and I will not venture to say you are wrong. Therefore, you use your brains to frustrate it. Unhappily the life of millions is built on that smattering, so you are a foe to society. But there would be no flavour in controlling subterranean things if you were yourself a mole working in the dark. To get the full flavour, the irony of it all, you must live in the light. I can imagine you laughing in your soul as you move about our world, praising it with your lips, patting it with your hands, and kicking its props away with your feet. I can see the charm of it.’
For someone lacking the gift of the gab, he’s not exactly tongue-tied, any more than he’s really sedentary.
Even so, he’s not as relentlessly active as other Buchan heroes (few people are), and you get the impression that Buchan thought this was quite a big deal. It’s not, of course, because his life off-page is irrelevant to us. In later novels Leithen will be found on the Scottish moors, on a Greek island, and in the frozen wilderness of Canada; we never experience the mundanity of him doing his day-job, we don’t see the man who’s ‘had my nose to the grindstone ever since I left school’. And even in this first outing, where the scene never leaves London (save for one brief excursion into Surrey), he’s instantly transformed into a thoroughly convincing action hero.
The London setting is important, because it’s this that really lifts the book. There are really good passages where Lumley’s agents seem to be lurking everywhere, in daylight and in shadow, transforming public places into hostile enemy territory, the familiar into the sinister. Here’s Leithen and Chapman, another MP, trying to get home in the mid-evening:
The queer thing is that there was no sign of trouble till we got into Oxford Street. Then I became aware that there were people on these pavements who knew all about me. I first noticed it at the mouth of one of those little dark side-alleys which run up into mews and small dingy courts. I found myself being skilfully edged away from Chapman into the shadow, but I noticed it in time and butted my way back to the pavement. I couldn’t make out who the people were who hustled me. They seemed nondescripts of all sorts, but I fancied there were women among them.
This happened twice, and I got wary, but I was nearly caught before we reached Oxford Circus. There was a front of a big shop rebuilding, and the usual wooden barricade with a gate. Just as we passed it there was a special throng on the pavement, and I, being next the wall, got pushed against the gate. Suddenly it gave, and I was pressed inward. I was right inside before I realised my danger, and the gate was closing. There must have been people there, but I could see nothing in the gloom.
It was no time for false pride. I yelled to Chapman, and the next second his burly shoulder was in the gap. The hustlers vanished, and I seemed to hear a polite voice begging my pardon.
Chapman, it’s worth noting, is a Labour MP from Yorkshire, but he can be relied upon because he’s a solid chap and because, ‘like most of his party, he hated anarchism worse than capitalism, and the notion of a highly-capitalised, highly-scientific, highly-undemocratic anarchism fairly revolted his soul’. Character always runs deeper than political affiliation in Buchan’s world, just as it does in the novels of Buchan’s latter-day disciple William Haggard.
The story was serialized in Blackwood magazine from November 1913, but it wasn’t deemed worthy of re-publishing in volume form until after the success of the book of The Thirty-Nine Steps. Buchan’s slightly apologetic Dedication to the book makes clear that it’s a bit of an after-thought and not to be taken too seriously:
A recent tale of mine has, I am told, found favour in the dug-outs and billets of the British front, as being sufficiently short and sufficiently exciting for men who have little leisure to read. My friends in that uneasy region have asked for more. So I have printed this story, written in the smooth days before the war, in the hope that it may enable an honest man here and there to forget for an hour the too urgent realities.
I’ve mentioned elsewhere that critics applied different standards to serialized stories on the one hand, and books on the other. So it was here. The Scotsman praised the serial as being ‘rich in those qualities of mystery and uncanny adventure’, but the paper was less impressed by the novel. It was still an ‘exciting but wildly improbable tale of mystery and adventure’; it’s just that this was no longer enough: ‘The story will do to pass an idle hour; but it is not of outstanding merit.’
Other reviewers agreed. ‘Here is a shilling shocker of plot and counter-plot, of marvellous inventions destined to destroy the human race,’ wrote the Sphere, but added that Buchan was rather wasting his time: it was ‘scarcely worthy of him’.
I assume that Buchan intended this as a one-off, but in 1925 – a dozen years on from The Power-House – Edward Leithen returned in the very different (and very splendid) novel John McNabb. There were a further three books, all of them with their own atmosphere and structure. The series has far more variation than the Richard Hannay novels, and Leithen himself grows into a serious character, the repository of all Buchan’s wisdom and experience.
That, however, was for the future. At this stage, Leithen is pretty much interchangeable with the Richard Hannay of The Thirty-Nine Steps. He’s an action hero in a thriller. And it’s a thriller that still races along, more than a century later.
One thing, though: Andrew Lumley? That’s a rubbish name for a super-villain, that is.
* I have a Longmans, Green edition of the novel, published in 1952, which adds a set of educational endnotes explaining some of the references in the text. So, just as an historical curio, this is how Friedrich Nietzsche was seen at the time in mainstream Britain:
Nietzsche, born 1844, died 1900, was a German philosopher who gave to current German thought the conception (so much abused by the Nazis) of the Superman. Almost unknown when he became insane in 1889, he was famous before he died eleven years later. His greatness as a creative artist rests on a work entitled Zarathustra, in which he expounded his idea of the Will to Power as the basis of progress.
also by John Buchan: