John Macnab is the second book in my John Buchan reading project, Buchan of the Month. 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. You can catch up with my introduction to last’s month’s Buchan, The Power-House, here or read my review here.
What follows is an introduction to John Macnab (positively no spoilers!). It is also an excuse to show a picture of my lovely 1936 Nelson edition of the book complete with dustjacket. I will be posting my review of the book later in the month.
John Macnab first appeared in serial form in Chambers’s Journal, published in eight instalments between January and August 1925. It was published in novel form in July 1925 by Hodder & Stoughton, the publisher of all John Buchan’s novels since Greenmantle. John Macnab was published in the United States by Houghton Mifflin, who he’d started working with in 1924.
In his introduction to The Leithen Stories (Canongate Classics), Christopher Harvie describes John Macnab as ‘the most light-hearted of Buchan’s novels’. It perhaps reflects a more settled period in Buchan’s life. He had moved with his family to Elsfield in the Oxfordshire countryside in 1920. As his biographer, Janet Adam-Smith, observes, in John Macnab ‘There are no villains, sinister or fascinating, and no world-wide conspiracies’.
The hero of The Power-House, Sir Edward Leithen, returns in John Macnab. Along with John Palliser-Yeates and Lord Lamancha, he forms a trio of gentlemen occupying prominent positions in public life who find themselves suffering from a bad dose of ‘ennui’. In an attempt to overcome this, they embark on a poaching challenge, announcing under a nom-de-plume (John Macnab) to the owners of three Highland estates that they will bag two stags and a salmon without permission, remaining undetected until the challenge has been completed.
The story is inspired by the real life exploits of one Captain James Brander Dunbar. You can read about it in this article in The Field magazine. Buchan’s creation lives on to this day as modern-day hunting enthusiasts can attempt to ‘bag a Macnab’, that is to stalk a red stag, bag a brace of grouse and catch a salmon all in the same day. However, the requirement to be undetected and the poaching element no longer applies!
John Buchan was quite open about the fact that he wrote his books as a source of income. Although John Macnab didn’t hit the heights of The Thirty-Nine Steps or Greenmantle, Janet Adam-Smith reports its combined sales up to 1960 from editions published by Hodder & Stoughton or Nelson amounted to 156,000 copies. Why not join me in enjoying the exploits of three gentlemen in search of a little illicit excitement in John Macnab.
Christopher Harvie, ‘Introduction’ to The Leithen Stories (Canongate Classics
Kate Macdonald, John Buchan: A Companion to the Mystery Fiction (McFarland, 2009)
Janet Adam Smith, John Buchan: A Biography (OUP, 1985 )