As usual I am behind with writing book reviews, but whilst it is still relatively fresh in my mind I’m going to begin catching up with the latest book I read. It’s only short – 108 pages – and I enjoyed it far more than I thought I would.
John Buchan’s The Power-House, was written in 1913 when it was serialised in Blackwood’s Magazine and then published in book form in 1916. In her Introduction to the Polygon Books edition Stella Rimington described it as:
Pure essence of Buchan – a demonstration of his magical power to weave a tale out of no materials but the threads and colours of his imagination. It does, however, possess a theme – John Bunyan’s idea, in Pilgrim’s Progress, of men of goodwill and courage struggling with an intelligent, evil power at the root of all the world’s troubles and confessions. (page vii)
The narrator is Edward Leithen, a barrister and MP. His friend and fellow MP Tommy Deloraine tells him is off to Moscow to track down one of their Oxford contemporaries, Charles Pitt-Heron, who had disappeared without letting his wife where he was going. He told her he’d be home for luncheon, but never came back. Whilst Tommy goes off in pursuit of Pitt-Heron, Leithen stays in London, but soon his curiosity draws him into the mystery, because, as he tells himself, ‘every man at the bottom of his heart believes that he is a born detective.’ And so, having collected a few items of information merely by accident and coincidence, he finds the connecting link between them in the person of Andrew Lumley, a wealthy Englishman. Lumley, an elderly man, with menacing, pale eyes, hidden behind his tinted glasses is the key to the whole mystery.
Just as Hannay in Buchan’s later novel, The Thirty-nine Steps, meets the villain Von Schwabing in the library of his country house, so Leithen meets Lumley in his gentleman’s country house, High Ashes, in his library. The two men dine together and then settle themselves in armchairs to smoke cigars and proceed to talk about many things. Leithen is perplexed by him and his speculations on the nature of civilisation, and of power.
I was struck by these thoughts: Lumley states that civilisation is a conspiracy to which Leithen responds that it is in the interests ‘of all the best brains in the world to keep up the conspiracy.‘ To which Lumley replies:
Do we really get the all the best brains working on the side of the compact? Take the business of Government. When all is said, we are ruled by amateurs and the second-rate. The methods of our departments would bring any private firm to bankruptcy. The methods of Parliament – pardon me – would disgrace any board of directors. Our rulers pretend to buy expert knowledge, but they never pay the price of it that a business man would pay, and if they get it they have not the courage to use it. (pages 33 -34)
Lumley continues in this vein and concludes that what is needed is some sort of Power-House to start the ‘age of miracles‘. Leithen is unsettled, to say the least, by his talk and his ‘eerie persuasiveness’.
From an somewhat slow start and a middle consisting mainly of conversation, the novel then picks up pace dramatically. Just as in The Thirty-nine Steps when Hannay goes on the run, fearing for his life, over the moors, so Leithen, in danger of his life, flees his pursuers through the streets of London, as he is lured in deserted buildings, taxis and a decidedly dodgy restaurant. He realises how thin the protection of civilisation is and how there were dozens of ways of spiriting him out of ‘this gay, bustling world‘, alone in a crowd with no one to help him, only his own wits.
Buchan tells a good story, even if I had little idea what the Power-House really was. It’s an international anarchist network, but who they were, what they were actually after, or how they hoped to achieve their ends was never clear to me. But I really enjoyed this book. As Stella Rimington says it has an ‘intoxicating blend of madness with scents of home and countryside.’ And
… the thinness of the crust of civilisation, whatever that may be these days, is as relevant in our time as it was when Buchan was writing in the early war-torn years of the twentieth century. (page xi)