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  • The Buchan Companion
  • John J. Conlon
Kate Macdonald. John Buchan: A Companion to the Mystery Fiction. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2009. x + 219 pp. Paper $39.95

This first in the projected series of the McFarland Companions to Mystery Fiction is of unquestioned interest to the ELT readership. The extensive annotated bibliography, for example, builds upon the "immense and invaluable" Buchan bibliography created by J. Randolph Cox in volume 9 of ELT (1966) and notes several other essays and sketches in this journal's pages over the past several decades. The bibliography's fifteen pages (double columns) is itself both a monumental study and a starting place for further scholarship.

Buchan was at the center of numerous literary movements and moments in the 1880–1920 era. Among his first jobs while on scholarship at Brasenose College (Oxford) beginning in 1895 was to read submissions for The Yellow Book where his first collection of stories and poems subsequently appeared. His reading of as many as four manuscripts each week more than familiarized him with contemporary styles and fashions in literature and also gave him a sense of what was marketable.

Macdonald's preface and "Brief Biography" provide good general information for those new to Buchan and his works and also contain several pointers about Buchan's love of the inexplicable, his grounding in Scottish language and history, his political aspirations that culminated in his election to a barony as Lord Tweedsmuir and appointment as Governor General of Canada in 1935. In addition, a recapitulation of Buchan's wartime experiences in the Boer War and World War I illustrates the extent to which these experiences shaped his mystery fiction and other writing. [End Page 369]

The Companion is a reference guide to Buchan's fiction for general readers and also for scholars, containing not only the usual factual matter of such guides but also comprehensive analyses of Buchan's themes and influences in his fiction. So, for example, the extensive entry "Buchan Writing About Women" rightly characterizes his treatment of women as figures providing chances of redemption or improvement (a Victorian byword) or as prizes for the hero; the women seem not to go beyond stereotypes. In a body of work nearly devoid of sex, this seems remarkable even for its time and leads to examining gender-related entries.

Macdonald's treatment of "Buchan and Homoerotics" presents not the usual perspective one might expect given his portraits of women. She actually takes issue with those who ascribe homoerotic elements to Buchan's texts, offers exact instances of critics' embellishing upon the statements of Buchan's fictional characters (embellishments that he did not write), and concludes that some critics have set out to find in the text what they wished to find rather than what the text has to offer.

She also takes on the received critical sense of Buchan's reputation as an anti-Semite in "Buchan and Anti-Semitism," setting the record straight by adducing his work as a supporter of Zionism and the other pro-Jewish elements of his public works and private letters. Moreover, she points out some critics' anachronisms that disregard the chronology of the composition of his writings and their publication dates as well as their lack of attention to the details of his actual writings (and the words he did write). Indeed, as she astutely points out, the Jews of Buchan's works have subtleties and complexities others have overlooked, perhaps by not letting the facts get in the way of telling a good story or getting something published. These are but a few of Macdonald's tightly argued commentaries on the themes of Buchan's work.

The Companion includes a lengthy section on the radio, screen and stage adaptations of his most famous work, The Thirty-Nine Steps. The numerous BBC adaptations, the famous Alfred Hitchcock film treatment and adaptation, and the recent stagings of the novel's story (London, 2008; New York, 2009) illustrate that Buchan's popularity, at least in that tale, abides. If viewers are led back to the corpus of his mystery works, this is a most convenient and nicely illustrated guide for them to follow.

Buchan is, of course...