The Power-House, the first book-length appearance of Tory MP and barrister Edward Leithen, was first published in Blackwood’s in December 1913. Although in many ways the preoccupations of the Leithen novels are similar to those of the more well-known Hannay series, their heroes could not be more different. Richard Hannay is the archetypal man of action – if less gung-ho than this epithet might suggest – while Edward Leithen is content to stay in the shadows, providing the cerebral logistics for others, a characteristic which has often led to comparisons with his creator. Leithen gives the following self-deprecatory description of himself:
‘I am a dry creature who loves facts and logic. I am not a flier. I have no new ideas, I don’t want to lead men, and I like work. I am an ordinary educated Englishman, and my sort gravitates towards the Bar. We like feeling that if we are not the builders, we are the cement of civilisation.’
Leithen is more than this ‘dry creature’, of course, as his adversary in this novella, Andrew Lumley, finds out to his cost, and we, the readers, discover to our pleasure.
The story begins with the disappearance of one of Leithen’s Oxford contemporaries, Charles Pitt-Heron. Leithen learns from Pitt-Heron’s wife that he has been forced to flee, and that she is to make secret arrangements to join him. By a series of fortuitous accidents, Leithen links the mystery to a retired East India merchant Julius Pavia, the latter’s sinister butler Tuke, and to Lumley, an art collector and bibliophile. Help is dispatched to track down the missing man, while Leithen (with assistance from a fearless if rather inept Labour colleague from the House of Commons) coordinates efforts to thwart those responsible for Pitt-Heron’s flight.
Leithen is not averse to a bit of Hannay-like derring-do of his own to achieve Lumley’s nemesis (there is a memorable chase through the streets of London, and a tense scene in a locked room above a restaurant), though he is clearly somewhat out of his element in such situations. But this is no weakness in the character; on the contrary it makes Leithen both more believable and more engaging. As David Daniell has pointed out, Leithen lacks the arrogance, toughness and driving ambition usually associated with those at the top of Edwardian society (qualities Buchan has often been accused of celebrating in his novels), but his modesty and imagination make him an ideal commentator on events, and also an effective vehicle for some gentle social and political satire.
Andrew Lumley for his part is one in a long line of highly intelligent and charismatic yet utterly amoral Buchan villains. Like Dominick Medina, for example (from The Three Hostages, 1924), Lumley is an Establishment figure, moving in the most exclusive social, economic and political circles. Yet this donnish, white-haired gentleman, ‘the most learned old fellow in Britain’ who ‘pulls the strings more than anyone living’, is in fact the brains behind a sinister international organisation known as ‘The Power-House’, the objectives of which are never fully clear, but which is clearly committed to bringing an end to civilisation as we know it, with its ‘second-rate’ and ‘insipid’ rulers.
There is a touch of the formulaic in Buchan’s evocation of this international network of anarchist plotters, or perhaps the modern reader has become somewhat jaded by the reappearance ad nauseam of such plotlines in the spy-thriller genre which Buchan all but invented. Yet Buchan’s motives are sincere for all that, reflecting the author’s continuing preoccupation with the morality of political leadership. The theme crops up in many of his subsequent novels; the danger of power unrestrained by responsibility, of the untold damage that can be wrought by men like Lumley, those ‘without the ring of civilisation’, ‘pure intelligence… stripped of every shred of humanity’. In a widely-quoted passage, Leithen is told that the values of civilised society are not as secure as he might like to think:
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. A touch here, a push there, and you bring back the reign of Saturn.
Yet though such weighty matters hover continually just out of frame, much of the book is lighter in tone, with a number of exciting set-pieces and chases, as good as anything in Buchan’s fiction. Edwardian London of Piccadilly and Green Park is transformed into a hostile jungle with danger around every corner.
‘It was the homely London I knew so well, and I was somehow an exile from it. I was being shepherded into a dismal isolation, which unless I won help might mean death… Now I saw how thin is the protection of civilisation. An accident and a bogus ambulance – a false charge and a bogus arrest – there were a dozen ways of spiriting me out of this gay, bustling world.’
Leithen may lack the panache of a Richard Hannay, but there is a reassuring solidity to him which recalls Conan Doyle’s Dr Watson (though Leithen also shares some of the intuitive flair of Holmes himself), a presence that invites the reader to consider how he or she might have reacted in similar exceptional circumstances.
The ultimate success of the ‘commonplace’ lawyer in foiling down the super-brain may, as Christopher Harvie suggests, indicate that for Buchan, ‘the security of 1913 was genuine and not canvas painted to look like stone stretched over a chasm’. The cataclysmic events of the following five years would force him to revise that optimistic assessment.
Neil Davie, 2005
Audio available: Librivox https://archive.org/details/thepowerhouse_1312_librivox/powerhouse_01_buchan_128kb.mp3
Available to read at https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/57631/pg57631-images.html