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John Macnab (1925)

by John Buchan

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Edward Leithen stories (Book 2)

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3651262,137 (4.07)47
John Macnab is the second most famous novel by John Buchan, published in 1925. It is a story of three successful men - a barrister, cabinet minister and banker who are bored. They decide to alleviate the boredom by anonymously informing three Scottish estates that they intend to poach a stag or a salmon and returning it to them undetected. It is about daring thinking and high living set in the beautiful Highlands of Scotland and evoking images of the hunting, shooting and fishing lifestyle.… (more)

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» See also 47 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 12 (next | show all)
Unlike many Buchan books, the adventure in this one has no political side to it (except for the fact that some politicians take part). Rather, it is adventure purely for the fun & sport of it. ( )
  leslie.98 | Jun 17, 2018 |
This is one of my favourite novels, ever, and I seem to re-read it just about every year. Like so much of Buchan's prolific output, it might nowadays at first sight seem rather archaic, with characters romantically hankering after a Corinthian past largely of their own imagining. It does, however, espouse simple values that effortlessly stand the test of any time.

The novel opens on a summer day in the mid-1920s with Sir Edward Leithen, accomplished barrister and Member of Parliament, visiting his doctor seeking a remedy for a dispiriting lethargy or ennui that has recently befallen him. His doctor is unable to identify any physical source for Leithen's discomfort and recalls the bane of the intellectual community in the Middle Ages who were plagued with tedium vitae. His brutal prescription to the beleaguered barrister is that Leithen should endeavour to steal a horse in a country where rustling is a capital crime.

Later that evening Leithen dines in his club and meets an old friend, John Palliser-Yates, an eminent banker, who has been similarly smitten. When the two of them are joined for a glass of restorative brandy by Charles, Lord Lamancha, Cabinet Minister and general grandee, who also claims to be suffering from this disturbing listlessness, and Sir Archibald Roylance, general good chap about town, the four of them hit upon the idea of issuing a poacher's challenge, writing to three landowners and stating that they will bag a deer or salmon between certain dates and inviting the landowner to do their best to stop them. They decide to base themselves at Sir Archie's highland estate, and proceed to challenge three of his neighbours. Seeing a half-empty bottle of John Macnab whisky on the next table they adopt that name as their soubriquet.

As always with John Buchan's works the prose is beautiful - clear and sonorous - and his love of the Scottish landscape comes shining through. Though I have no love of hunting, the descriptions of the stalking manoeuvres are described in close, though never overwhelming details, and the characters all appear entirely plausible. Buchan has often been dismissed as writing stereotypical characters wholly lacking in political or social conscience. This novel triumphantly decries that charge. It positively rattles with social conscience, often dispensed from unexpected sources.

It also offers a heady mix of out and out adventure, humour, and even a love story. A little bit of everything, conveyed in Buchan's unerringly gifted prose. A heart-warming paean to a better ordered time. ( )
  Eyejaybee | Jul 22, 2017 |
three bored English gentlemen dream up a scheme to get them out of their ennui. They decide to see if they can poach two stags and a salmon from three different Scottish estates. Each of them is to take on one of the poaching duties. Sir Edward Leithen is a superb fly fisher and it is his task to poach a Salmon by rod and reel.
  flyfisher64 | Oct 5, 2016 |
One might be excused for thinking that the principal affliction of upper class gentlemen between the wars was syphilis. Not so, according to John Buchan. The three chief protagonists of the superb ‘John Macnab’ (indeed, as we learn, the three chief protagonists who collectively are John Macnab) are afflicted with ennui. This is not, as one may also be excused for thinking, French for ‘le pox’ but rather a mental malady that causes one to listlessly flop about the furniture of one’s club, and sigh. Such an affliction, stimulating emotion, is terribly un-British, hence its foreign name. The cure however is Britishness, or rather Scottishness, personified – action!
Three friends are in London in the Summer, and are in low spirits. The answer is obvious, but in the days before GPs handed out happy pills like smarties (but ironically prescribed opium and heroin as a ‘pick me up’) they need to concoct their own cure. They devise a challenge, giving advance warning to the owners of three Scottish estates that they will poach either a stag or a salmon. The game, or in this case the game and the fish, is on. If caught it will mean exposure and ruined reputations, if they win it will mean thrills aplenty, secret glory and, presumably, surf and turf breakfast, lunch and dinner for a month.
This is exceptional storytelling. There are myriad charming details, such as the challengers forsaking ‘the Widow’ (Veuve Clicquot) until they are done with their challenge. Now, that, right there, is everything you need to know about the characters, about the sort of book you are reading and, very possibly, based on your reaction to that announcement, the sort of person you are. Who has the sort of lifestyle where they have to make a conscious decision to stop drinking champagne for a few days, in order to really enjoy it at a celebration? Formula One drivers, maybe.
The protagonists are not the only memorable characters in the novel, the cast of characters roughly dividing between toffs and serfs. The toffs consist of our three faux poachers of course, but there is also the landowners they have threatened to poach from, who show themselves in their responses to the warning to be either the sort of chap (chapesses do feature also) who recognise and relish a sporting challenge, or the sort of person who does not understand a gentlemanly challenge, or the countryside. That is; a right bastard.
The serfs are the various servants, who are loyal and dour in equal measure and, no doubt, have their own opinions about the whole enterprise, but are more than willing to assist their masters in getting one over on the owners or tenants of nearby estates. Nothing like a little gillie rivalry to ensure that ‘your man’ is happy to assist you in your criminal endeavours. Special mention should also be made of ‘Fish Benjie’, the gypsy Fishmonger of the Glen.
Although well stocked with characters as colourful as neon tartan, all take second place to the landscape as character. The Scottish Highlands, we read, are glorious, one almost wants to grab a rod, reel and bloody big gun and take to the hills. The one thing to be said for a landscape more rugged than an over-compensating secretly homosexual matinee idol is that it presents plenty of places to hide in tweed with a bloody big gun, waiting for a stag.
Your enjoyment of this book may well depend upon your enjoyment of blood sports, because you cannot even comfort yourself that this is entirely fiction, the book having given rise to the Macnab Challenge, bagging a stag, a salmon and a brace of grouse between dawn and dusk. Putting aside the magnificence of the novel, what other book has inspired such a sporting event?
The protagonists are obviously in need of a good war for distraction and excitement, and the conclusion of the novel is as humbling as it is satisfying. It’s a tremendously Scottish novel, not just in the setting but in the social themes it explores, and in its exploration about what is good, and great, in the human character.
It’s also a tremendous read. Recommended. ( )
  macnabbs | Sep 12, 2016 |
Aug____ 19 ___


I have received your insolent letter. I do not know what kind of rascal you may be, except that you have the morals of a bandit and the assurance of a halfpenny journalist. But since you seem in your perverted way to be a sportsman, I am not the man to refuse your challenge. My reply is, sir, damn your eyes and have a try. I defy you to kill a stag in my forest between midnight on the 28th of August and midnight of the 30th. I will give instructions to my men to guard my marches, and if you should be roughly handled by them you have only to blame yourself.

Yours faithfully,

Three friends in their early forties, one a former Attorney-General now a successful barrister, one the head of an eminent banking firm, and one the Secretary of State for the Dominions, meet by co-incidence at their club. Two of them, Sir Edward Leithen and John Palliser-Yeates, have that day visited the same doctor complaining of acute lethargy, of taedium vitae, and the third, Lord Lamancha, is described by his younger friend, Sir Archie Roylance, to be 'glum as an owl', declaring everything to be worthless. As Lamancha puts it, "the light has gone out of the landscape". The doctor told Leithen that his problem was that he had become too comfortable, too successful, that he should put either his life or his reputation at risk, and Palliser-Yeates received similar advice. Archie, younger and just setting out on his career, is appalled, and says they should be ashamed of themselves. Thinking further on the matter, he tells them of Jim Tarras, who was driven by boredom to write to the owners of deer forests putting them on notice of his intention to kill a stag on their property between certain dates, and that if he were successful the body would be presented to its owner. Archie knows it to be true, because Tarras' man Wattie Lithgow now works for Archie at his property, Craske, up in the highlands. The unsuspecting Archie is quizzed about Craske, and when his friends learn that his Craske neighbours have between them two deer parks and a salmon river the game is on. Letters are sent to Colonel Raden (a Highland grandee, poor but of a family as old as the Flood), Mr Bandicott (a newly arrived American renting the house with the salmon fishing), and the Rt Hon Lord Claybody (whose money has come from trade and who is therefore presumably of recent title). Each of the letters is signed 'John Macnab'.

This is a lightly comic novel, and the seemingly straightforward challenge of outwitting the landowners and their staff in order to make the kill and return the trophy is soon complicated by bright-haired girls, strange dogs, sharp-eyed locals, and an exponentially increasing cast of extras. Beneath the comedy is the shadow of the Great War. The novel was first published in 1924, and therefore these men are all of an age to have fought in it. Leithen when describing his unshakable dissatisfaction to his doctor says "I tell you there's nothing at this moment that has the slightest charm for me. I'm bored with my work and I can't think of anything else of any kind for which I would cross the street. I don't even want to go into the country and sleep. It's been coming on for a long time - I dare say it's due somehow to the war... ... Now there's nothing for me to do except earn an enormous income, which I haven't any need for." Elsewhere there are references to people's war service, the physical and mental damage, and the differing attitudes of combatants and noncombatants to those who have been in the thick of it.

Tarras/Macnab is based on Captain James Brander Dunbar, a contemporary of Buchan's, described by Andrew Grieg in his introduction to this edition as "an upper-class, ex-Boer War eccentric, spy, crack shot and terrific fisherman, flouter of convention (and) Tory to the core." Dunbar successfully wagered Lord Abingdon that he could poach a stag from his estate.

Like many people I had read The Thirty-Nine Steps a few times many years ago, and Greenmantle once more recently, but I had not really given much further thought to Buchan. I bought two other books by him at the same time as this, and reading the various introductions I see that Buchan tended to write from what he knew, frequently from identifiable models. On that basis the choice of professions for his John Macnabs is interesting, as I read that Buchan himself had been a barrister, soldier, journalist, politician, and finally Governor-General for Canada, being created the first Lord Tweedsmuir of Elsfield in 1935, five years before his death. Also interesting, and somewhat surprising, I read that Archie Roylance is a staple of the Hannay novels, while Leithen has his own series of novels. Archie is almost Wodehousian in John Macnab, so I will be interested to see if he keeps that quality in the Hannay books. Although the characters were not of any great complexity, after I finished the book I found that I missed them.

Perfect light reading for a train journey through the Highlands and Islands.
4 vote Oandthegang | Apr 16, 2016 |
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» Add other authors (2 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
John Buchanprimary authorall editionscalculated
Greig, AndrewIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Russ, StephenCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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The great doctor stood on the hearth-rug looking down at his friend who sprawled before him in an easy-chair.
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John Macnab is the second most famous novel by John Buchan, published in 1925. It is a story of three successful men - a barrister, cabinet minister and banker who are bored. They decide to alleviate the boredom by anonymously informing three Scottish estates that they intend to poach a stag or a salmon and returning it to them undetected. It is about daring thinking and high living set in the beautiful Highlands of Scotland and evoking images of the hunting, shooting and fishing lifestyle.

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