100 years of the modern spy thriller

This year marks the centenary of the publication of The Thirty-Nine Steps, arguably the world’s first modern spy thriller.

When John Buchan wrote the book around the outbreak of the Great War, he set a template not only for today’s espionage novels but for all thrillers alike.

It was innovative for its time, with its fast and speedy style, drawing on all the latest technology of the era, such as the single-wing plane, fast cars, motorbikes, radio, telephone and probably the first reference in literature to a semi-automatic gun.

While some credit Erskine Childers’ 1903 Victorian novel The Riddle of the Sands, as the first spy thriller ever published, there are many who point to Buchan as the father of the genre because of his modern writing style that aligns him with 20th century thriller writers.

Childers’ adventure story certainly had an influence on Buchan who wrote on the same theme about the threat of a German invasion of Britain. It had become a popular storyline among many writers since the 1880s until the eventual outbreak of World War One in 1914. Buchan’s novel was in fact the last to be written on the subject.

Buchan was born in Perth, Scotland, and went to Glasgow University and Oxford. He was already writing at this stage of his life, winning awards including for poetry. Despite his constant ill health, he was a barrister, MP, solder, writer and publisher.

His first success as an author was the publication of Prester John in 1910. It tells the story of a young Scotsman named David Crawfurd and his adventures in South Africa, where a Zulu uprising is tied to the medieval legend of Prester John. The hero in this story is later reincarnated as Richard Hannay in The Thirty-Nine Steps.

Buchan was looking to write a best seller as he had a good eye for book trends as a publisher. It took him only a few weeks to pen The Thirty-Nine Steps just after the outbreak of war, publishing the short novel the following year in October 1915. It was an instant hit with the solders in the trenches because not only did it take their minds off the fighting, but it was the type of book they could read in short bursts. Buchan had hit on a winning formula.

The premise of an innocent man getting accidentally caught up in international intrigue has become the bread and butter of many latter-day thriller writers. It is the classic call to adventure that makes this theme so enduring.

But the set-up used by Buchan has such a contemporary feel, providing you can put aside the anachronistic characters he describes in Edwardian Britain. Richard Hannay, a Scottish mining engineer, returns to London from Rhodesia and is so bored that he’s at the point of returning to Africa when he stumbles on a murder that could have implications to Britain’s security. Suddenly, his world is turned upside down and he’s on the run.

Buchan realised that the stakes had to be high to be put the readers on the edge of their seat. And nothing could be higher than Britain’s secret naval plans possibly falling into the hands of German spies. This at a time when his readers already understood what it felt to be at war.

Twenty years after its publication Hitchcock brought new life to the book with a comedy thriller, improving the story, and setting new standards in modern film making. Hitchcock via Buchan had established the chase thriller and then went on to re-cycle The 39 Steps in the guise of Foreign Correspondent, Saboteur, and North by Northwest.

I have to confess I’m a sucker of the man-on-the-run theme and in my debut thriller, HIDER/SEEKER, I have used it in an inverse way.

My favourite type of thriller is where an ordinary man, minding his own business, is suddenly put into jeopardy. In HIDER/SEEKER, the main character, Harry Bridger, is no ordinary man, but his nightmare begins when his client goes on the run.

I remember exactly where I first read The Thirty-Nine Steps. It was while on holiday in Torridon, in the Northwest Highlands of Scotland. We had rented a cottage and the landlord had left a pile of books for a rainy day. I sat down on a sofa after supper and never got up again until I’d finished the book. I can’t say that I’ve done that with many books.

The enigmatic title, which does not provide a credible pay off in the book, though Hitchcock does better, came from Buchan’s six year old daughter, Alice. She gifted him the title of his new novel while he was staying in a house in Kent with his family. It was the number of steps that went down to the beach from the house as told in the book’s finale.

Buchan was created Baron of Tweedsmuir of Elsfield and held the position of Governor-General of Canada until his death in 1940.

The British historian, G.M Trevelyan*, paid the following tribute to him. ‘I don’t think I remember anyone whose death evoked a more enviable outburst of sorrow, love and admiration.’

The book was published on 19 October 1915 by Blackwood & Sons of Edinburgh and the John Buchan Museum in Peebles, Scotland, will be celebrating its publication with a special exhibition. (See News)

* G.M Trevelyan’s work was much admired by Dr Rod Whitaker’s wife who suggested to her husband that he adopt the surname as his pseudonym, Trevanian. (See The countdown begins, 4 March 2015)

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at www.tomclaver.co.uk’.

Ebooks conundrum

When I first bought a Kindle I was sceptical whether I would enjoy reading books on an electronic device, but I soon became a convert.

Apart from being light to carry and convenient to use, I particularly found the dictionary useful for all those difficult words or obscure references, especially when reading US novels. It particularly came in handy when reading Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl as it had a number of American references I didn’t understand.

But despite the benefits of this relatively new delivery system for text, many in the publishing trade do not share such positive views. They fear that the various forms of digital transmission of words to readers could spell the end of the printed book being the primary medium of literature. It could ring the death knell for small independent bookstores and local libraries.

The printed book is still a wonderful possession to have in the house. But so were LPs, until CDs replaced them, and now music downloads are replacing CDs. The ebook market is still far from reaching maturity, but last year the consultants PriceWaterhouseCoopers  forecast that the ebook could overtake the physical book by 2018 when the electronic market is expected to reach £1bn.

Nothing ever stands still and the prospect of a future with a permanently stable equilibrium is wishful thinking. David Lodge suggested in the Financial Times last week that the electronic era in music and TV has only helped to spur more interest in live concert and theatre performances by artists. He wonders whether the literary festivals could provide the same opportunity by providing that live connection with the reader.

In the same week the award-winning author Fay Weldon gave a different piece of advice at the Independent Bath Literature Festival to literary novelists.

She was following up on a blog she wrote last September in which she said the books that sell best in electronic form are mostly commercial fiction.

The 83-year old writer told the festival that literary novelists should swallow their pride and write two versions of their book – one with all the hard contemplative bits for print and an easier page-turning version for ebooks. Weldon says that writers can’t expect the same version of their book to serve both markets. They should consider catering for the busy ebook reader constantly on the move with little time for contemplation and reflection.

I think what she is advising elite writers to do is akin to the “film director’s cut” – the extended version of the film that represents the filmmaker’s own approved edit. Using the same analogy, the shorter theatrical release of the film would be the equivalent of the ebook. It’s anyone’s guess whether this would bolster sales for high-brow authors, some of whom tend to look down on commercial fiction, such as the mystery novel, as if it were an inferior genre.

The debate on literary vs popular fiction is an endless one. A thriller may not be art, but it can be artful. It might very well be written clumsily, but it can nevertheless be absorbing.

Good writing, according to Weldon, is “so much to do with an aesthetic, with a resonance of language which is apparent on paper but not on a screen. The e-novel is aesthetic free, resonance free, concerns itself rightly with happenings, cliff-hangers, suspense – all the crude elements the aspiring literary writer is encouraged to play down.”

Yet Weldon openly admits that she simply does not get along with ebooks. She says that she finds the electronic form tiring to read, no matter who the author is.

No doubt that screen awareness differs from person to person in the same way that people recently couldn’t agree whether a dress was white and gold or blue and black.

But ebooks are very much a boon to those readers that enjoy the flexibility of being able to read two or three books on the go, switching from one to the other with a mere tap of the screen.

However, my favourite reason for using an ebook has nothing to do with the content that I have downloaded. It has a lot to do with the sheer comfort of being able to sit on a sofa with a whisky in one hand and crisps in the other while reading the device balanced on my lap. Try doing that with a printed book.

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at www.tomclaver.co.uk’.

The countdown begins

Having reached a very respectable age I thought it was high time to fulfil a lifelong ambition of publishing a thriller. I hope you will enjoy reading HIDER/SEEKER when it is launched as an e-book by Amazon from 29 April.

If you take a look at my home page you’ll read why it has taken me so embarrassingly long to get my act together and how I got the bug to write when I took creative writing classes with Dr Rod Whitaker in the early 1970s. He wrote under the pen name of Trevanian and was possibly best known for his debut thriller, “The Eiger Sanction,” which was turned into a film by Clint Eastwood.

I’ve paid a big tribute to the late Dr Whitaker on my web and would really like to hear from anyone who studied under him or who knew him well. He was an elusive author who baffled many people in his lifetime because of his keenness to keep his real name a secret. This led to all sorts of conspiracy theories, which I would imagine he enjoyed.

I didn’t go to his evening classes with any specific intention other than to get away from my awful bedsit and an annoying tenant. But I was captivated by the story of his first book becoming an international best seller and being turned into a film by Eastwood, a film maker I have always admired.

So he gave me the appetite to write and I did nothing about it all my life until 10 years ago when I decided it was now or never to learn how to write a thriller. I read lots of books on writing, but they didn’t mean anything to me until I wrote something that resembled a book. It’s only once you have written a novel that you understand what these books are trying to teach you.

Dr Whitaker inspired me to write, but showing me how to do it was largely down to three women who I’d like to thank in my first ever blog.

I sent my first attempt at writing a thriller to Bernie Ross, a former fiction editor and literary editor, who provided me with a 10-page critique (singled lined) blitzing my prose. There was absolutely nothing, and I mean nothing, that she thought was right about the book. When I read her response I think I laughed aloud at how hopeless I was because that was all one could do. As a professional journalist, I didn’t see it as intimidating but as a perfectly good analysis of what was wrong with my writing. It was nothing personal, just business, as they say.

I took it upon myself to re-write some chapters as an academic exercise, doing it the way Bernie had suggested. And what an improvement. I’d hit upon a style of writing that suited me and I re-edited the whole book. We became friends and we have remained in touch ever since. Bernie still writes occasionally, but her great passion now is painting. (http://www.bernrossartist.com)

Now that I had written a book, I needed an agent. I was soon to discover that this would be the most depressing part of the whole writing experience. Although I never found an agent, I did receive a most encouraging telephone call from the indefatigable Betty Schwartz. She was with Futerman Rose at the time, and had previously been submissions editor at Hodder. Betty took the trouble of picking up the phone and telling me that she liked my style of writing. She helped sharpen my prose and told me not to give up. Anyone who has had the good fortune of coming into contact with Betty knows she is one of the nicest people you could ever wish to meet in publishing.

The book never got published, however, and I wrote another one, which also bit the dust. My third attempt was HIDER/SEEKER, which was a reworking of a film script I wrote many years ago. This time around I think I have hit all the marks, thanks mainly to the critical eye of Hilary Johnson Authors’ Advisory Service. There is no hiding place when Hilary analyses your MS. Hilary is always at the ready to administer the castor oil when it is needed and delivers it with such charm that you feel like asking for more.

So a big thank you to these ladies who have played their part in getting me over the finishing line.

But there is a very special fourth lady I would like to praise, my wife. She has put up with all my anxieties and pushed me into completing this ambition. She is the first reader of my books, and I want to especially thank her for making me stick to the course that I had set such a long time ago.

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at www.tomclaver.co.uk’.