It may be hindsight, but some writers appear destined to write particular books. Take, for example, Robert J Harris and his new novel The Thirty-One Kings, which brings together several of Scottish author John Buchan’s most popular characters—including Richard Hannay of The Thirty-Nine Steps—in a new adventure set during the early part of the Second World War.
“Like a lot of people I first discovered Richard Hannay when I was at school; John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps was one of the few required books I actually got around to reading because it was quite short,” says the St Andrews-based academic and children’s author. “Many years later, my wife Deborah gave me a copy of Greenmantle, which is the next Hannay novel; up to then I hadn’t really thought of there being a whole series of Buchan books. So I got into reading all Buchan’s novels.”
Eventually Robert reached Sick Heart River, which Buchan wrote just before he died. “Quite late in that book Leithen, the hero, finds out about the outbreak of the Second World War,” Robert explains, “and realises that his plans of going home and hanging out with his pals—he mentions Hannay and Sandy Arbuthnot, Sir Archie Roylance and some of Buchan’s other regulars—are not going to happen because they’ll all be off having new adventures, ‘doing their bit’.
“And I thought: if Buchan hadn’t died then, I bet he would’ve written a story out of that,” Robert says. “If he had lived through the Second World War, he probably would’ve written a book about his characters in that conflict. And so that notion, that kind of regret, stayed in my head.
Inevitably, that became a question of what he would write. “It was a kind of fantasy idea, because I was writing nice funny books for kids, which didn’t involve the research my earlier historical novels had done. Faced with the prospect of re-reading all the Buchan novels and other books I’d bring into it, as well as studying the whole history of the war, I knew it would be a lot of work that I couldn’t do unless I had a publisher interested beforehand.”
By a weird coincidence, Robert’s younger son Jamie was on an internship at Edinburgh publisher Birlinn, who publish Polygon books, as part of his M.Lit. Back home in St Andrews, the pair were discussing things they’d love to write and Robert mentioned continuing Hannay's adventures. “As an author I’m very un-savvy on the business side; I don’t even know who publishes what. Jamie said to me: ‘Dad, don’t you know that Polygon publish all of Buchan’s novels?’ I even had some of their editions! So I thought they’d probably be interested!”
Not just interested: after Robert had submitted a detailed proposal—“I’d written books for teenagers, historical novels, and funny books for younger kids, but I’d not written a book for adults, so I thought they're going to need a really good outline, to see that I’ve thought it all out”—he was commissioned remarkably quickly.
The main challenge, he found, was finding an approximation of Buchan’s writing style. “It’s not pretending to be a long lost manuscript,” he says, “but it’s us writing in collaboration, in the sense that I’m reading his work all the time. The Hannay books are all written in the first person, so it’s very much getting into his mindset, how he sees the world. I think I’ve pulled it off; certainly before Christmas I’d done the first five chapters and everyone was going: ‘Wow, this is great. It reads like a Buchan novel’.”
“What was important to me with this book is that, in a sense, it completes the Buchan canon; it’s the book he didn’t get to write,” Robert says. “But it also enriches that canon by doing something that he hadn’t done, bringing characters together. That’s something Buchan hadn’t done but I’d have loved him to do it.
“If you’re going to write stories that pick up somebody else’s work, you could enrich it or be trashing it; with this book it seemed there was another story to be told, and I had the audacity to do it, and everything seemed to come together in time.
“I’m even the same age as Richard Hannay is in the book,” he adds. “I’m actually the right age to write this. I’m Scottish, and I’m a writer—so maybe I am the person to write it!”
First published in The Scots Magazine, #October 2017.