The Power-House is the first book in my Buchan of the Month reading project. To find out more about the project and my reading list for 2018, click here. If you would like to read along with me you will be very welcome – leave a comment on this post or on my original challenge post to let me know you’re taking part.
What follows is an introduction to the book (no spoilers!). It is also an excuse to show pictures of my prized first edition of The Power-House (without dust jacket, unfortunately) found in a bookshop on the island of Iona, of all places. As Buchan might have put it, I had ‘tramped’ through the cold, wet rain that day in search of the shop and was rewarded with this treasure.
I will be posting my review of the book later in the month.
“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.”
The Power-House first appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine of December 1913. However, it wasn’t until May 1916, following the success of The Thirty-Nine Steps (published in 1915), that William Blackwood & Sons published The Power-House in novel form. Clearly they were hoping to cash in on the success of The Thirty-Nine Steps and this seems to have been an astute decision because, according to Buchan’s first biographer, Janet Adam Smith, The Power-House (priced at one shilling) had sold 24,000 copies by the end of 1916.
In the dedication to The Power-House, John Buchan writes, “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”. He also wryly observes that the dedicatee, Major-General Sir Francis Lloyd, shares his own “liking for precipitous yarns”.
In describing The Power-House as a ‘yarn’, commonly defined as a long or rambling story, especially one that is implausible (although The Power-House is neither long nor rambling), it seems Buchan intended this first foray into the thriller genre to be a form of escapism from the troubled times the world was living through. In fact, he always used the self-deprecating term ‘shocker’ rather than thriller to describe his adventure stories.
The hero of The Power-House is Edward Leithen, whom Christopher Harvie describes as ‘the first and last of Buchan’s heroes’ and ‘the one closest in character to his author’. In fact, Leithen had earlier appeared briefly in ‘Space’ a short story by Buchan in his collection The Watcher by the Threshold, published in 1902. In The Power-House, Leithen recounts his story to a group of friends during a duck shooting trip, explaining “I once played the chief part in a rather exciting business without ever once budging from London”.
Although an early novel, The Power-House touches on a theme that will recur in later Buchan books, namely the fragility of civilisation. The period during which Buchan was writing The Power-House was a troubled time in his life. In 1910 he had unsuccessfully stood for Parliament and the following year his father died. This was followed by further family tragedy when his younger brother, Willie, died suddenly from an infection contracted while in India. Added to this, Buchan began to suffer from the digestive problems that would plague him for the rest of his life. It was a troubling time in world events as well. As Christopher Harvie notes, “The Power-House announces the terrific anarchy to be loosed upon the world”.
Janet Adam Smith describes Buchan’s recipe for The Power-House (and The Thirty-Nine Steps) as ‘brisk, improbable action played out against a realistic background’. In his autobiography, Memory-Hold-The-Door, Buchan describes himself as ‘a natural storyteller, the kind of man who for the sake of his yarns would in prehistoric days have been given a seat by the fire and a special chunk of mammoth’.
So find yourself a comfy reading spot and turn to the first page of The Power-House…
John Buchan, Memory-Hold-The-Door (Hodder & Stoughton, 1964 )
David Daniell, The Interpreter’s House: A Critical Assessment of the Work of John Buchan (Nelson, 1975)
Christopher Harvie, ‘Introduction’ to The Leithen Stories by John Buchan (Canongate Classics, 2000)
Kate Macdonald, John Buchan: A Companion to the Mystery Fiction (McFarland, 2009)
Janet Adam Smith, John Buchan: A Biography (OUP, 1985 )