I’ve not read much by Buchan, in fact I have only ever read The 39 Steps, before reading today’s read; a novella sized story, which was originally published in Blackwood’s Magazine and was reprinted by Polygon back in 2007. Stella Rimington writes the introduction to the book, though I must say she takes a bold approach in her opening sentence: ‘The Power-House is one of the least known of Buchan’s mature works, a tale without a plot, and so full of holes […]’ Now that’s how you sell a book!
Looking back at the book I wouldn’t say it completely lacks a plot, but I would say it fairly meanders along, with no strong sense of propulsion. Problems arise and are resolved with a great deal of ease, so it’s not a story to read for its realism. Its eerie sense of secret and vague conspiracies and plots afoot did remind me a little G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday (1908). Although coincidences abound, the story itself is grounded in a plausible setting and Rimington mentions that the tale is drawn from Buchan’s ‘wartime intelligence experiences,’ his political and military acquaintances and the ever growing fear of a world war. Thriller and adventure literature from the likes of Edgar Wallace and Robert Louis Stevenson also played their part.
The story itself begins with the disappearance of Charles Pitt-heron, under suspicious circumstances. One of his friends goes off to Russia to search for him, but it’s another, the tale’s protagonist Edward Leithen, who experiences most of the action, as Pitt-heron’s disappearance is a part of a much wider conspiracy. We are introduced to the arch-villain very early on and like other villains in the Buchan canon he has a menacing persona, which is masked beneath social respectability. Class and acting as a true gentleman are key themes which come up in Buchan’s work, as his protagonists adhere to a gentlemanly code, whilst the villains’ veneers of respectability are ultimately removed and shown to be false. Leithen is perhaps not the smartest or savviest of thriller sleuths, but against the odds he does manage to win the day, though if you are anything like me you do wonder why the villain of the piece caves in so easily.
Unsurprisingly this is not book I actively recommend, though readers interested in Buchan’s work and early thriller may find it of some interest. One thing I did enjoy in reading the book was identifying aspects of the story which Buchan would go on to develop more effectively in later works and which ones he would thankfully leave behind. Brevity definitely saved this from being an unbearable read.
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Car
Gaslight Crime has also reviewed this tale, though found more to like in it than I did.