Since there seems to be a very small likelihood of ever getting to see “John Macnab” the 1976 miniseries unless/until the BBC relents and puts it on DVD, I recently read John Buchan’s 1925 novel to find out as much as I could about Mr. Malahide’s journalist character, Crossby.
The novel itself is a light, enjoyable, tightly written adventure tale. Three aristocratic gentlemen, Sir Edward Leithen, John Palliser-Yeates, and Charles, Earl of Lamancha, are (as many of Buchan’s protagonists) bored, bored, bored with their lives. Mid-life crises, perhaps? They range in age from their thirties to fifties (Leithen is the oldest) and are all badly in need of some excitement. Leithen even visits his doctor to find out what’s wrong, and the doctor half-jokingly suggests that perhaps he should take up horse-stealing. But a visit with another friend, Sir Archie Roylance (who happens to have an estate in the Scottish Highlands), gives them the germ of an idea.
The Creation of John Macnab
Sir Archie tells our trio of an old friend named Jim Tarras who, also longing for some action, invented his own form of sport. He sent notes to local landowners telling them he’d be poaching a deer from their property between a certain set of dates and inviting them to do their best to stop him. If he succeeded in taking a deer undetected, he’d “win”. However, because Tarras was an honourable poacher only in it for the thrill, he’d return the animal’s carcass to the landowner as their property even if he wasn’t caught. This strikes the other three as something exciting they could do but, in the interest of preserving their reputations, they decide it would be safer to use a collective pseudonym to carry it out. They adopt the name “John Macnab” and decide the object of their game will be to poach either a stag or salmon from three of Roylance’s neighbours, paying the landowners £500 if they can return it undetected (as a show of goodwill) or £1,000 if they’re caught. The latter means they’d face legal consequences as well as a certain amount of public embarrassment, so they know they’re taking some tangible risks.
“John Macnab” then proceeds to issue challenges to three of Sir Archie’s neighbours: Colonel Raden and his daughters Janet and Agatha (the oldest, most established family in the area, yet they’re dying out); the Bandicotts (my brain persists in rendering this as “Bandicoot“), American father and son archaeologists renting an estate while they explore the tomb of ancient Celtic hero Harald Blacktooth (they believe in old-style archaeology, the kind that uses dynamite); and the Claybodys, a somewhat snooty nouveaux riche family whom no one seems to like much. And while Mr. Malahide played Crossby in 1976, both Admin and I could easily see him playing Colonel Raden now. He’s described as follows:
Colonel Alastair Raden, having read prayers to a row of servants from a chair in the window–there was a family tradition that he once broke off in a petition to call excitedly his Maker’s attention to a capercailzie on the lawn–and having finished his porridge, which he ate standing, with bulletins interjected about the weather, was doing good work on bacon and eggs. Breakfast, he used to declare, should consist of no kickshaws like kidneys and omelettes; only bacon and eggs, and plenty of ’em. The master of the house was a lean old gentleman dressed in an ancient loud-patterned tweed jacket and a very faded kilt. Still erect as a post, he had a barrack-square voice, and high-boned, aquiline face, and a kindly but irritable blue eye.
Everything from his devotion to hearty breakfasts to his lean, erect, tweed- and kilt-clad physique, high cheekbones, and “kindly but irritable” (not too irritable, we trust) blue eyes perfectly suggests Lord Glendenning. 😉
In return, the three families react to John Macnab’s irreverent challenge in their various ways. Colonel Raden “damn[s] [Macnab’s] eyes” as a cheeky rascal but thinks it’ll be fine sport; the Bandicotts are somewhat bewildered and mostly preoccupied with Blacktooth’s tomb, but up for it; and the humourless Claybodys have their lawyer issue a dry cease-and-desist. Palliser-Yeates is the first to try his luck. He actually succeeds in shooting one of Raden’s stags, but he’s caught by Janet (who’s the outdoorsy type) before he can escape with the booty. He does the honourable thing and concedes defeat to her before fleeing without the carcass. Fish Benjie, a ragamuffin, fish-mongering nine-year-old local urchin who’s been befriended by the Macnabs and is acting as their scout and spy, urges Palliser-Yeates to come back and take the deer anyway, but he refuses to contravene the rules they’ve set out.
With the first poaching attempt only a partial success, Leithen’s next to try. He goes for a walk on the Bandicotts’ property, casing their best fishing holes in preparation for taking a salmon. Fish Benjie warns him that the hills are crawling with journalists who’ve been drawn to the area in hopes of getting a scoop about the Bandicotts’ excavations, so he’d better be careful not to get caught. Crossby happens to be among the journalists’ number; he’s walking in the hills when Leithen, his mind on other things, runs into him completely by accident (although it should be noted these hills are surprisingly heavily populated; lots of people run into each other in them over the course of the novel). Hoping to keep a low profile and remain anonymous, Leithen tries to walk by Crossby with only a cursory greeting, but it’s no good. Crossby already knows exactly who he is, having recognized Leithen from a previous journalists’ lunch they both attended. Crossby himself is described as a young man in tweed knickerbockers and hobnail boots, with “a pleasant, shrewd, boyish face” and “the hard sunburnt skin of one in the prime of physical condition.” He’s also obviously the sort of person who has a huge mental Rolodex (databases haven’t been invented yet) with lots of potentially handy information for future use. Sunburn aside, I think a 1920s version of Colin Anderson would make a good match. 😉
Leithen quickly realizes Crossby is too sharp and observant for him to successfully maintain the John Macnab story, so he decides to risk taking Crossby into his confidence instead. He’s worried at first (especially at what Palliser-Yeates and Lamancha might think), but then relieved when, rather than being surprised at the scheme, Crossby decides it would make a perfect opportunity. In return for the promise of an “in” on the Bandicott excavation, Crossby agrees not to reveal the secret and even offers his help. He soon gets into the spirit of the thing, setting up shop at Crask, Sir Archie’s estate and “John Macnab’s” headquarters, and making himself at home. But he’s no mere observer; he proves himself invaluable in many ways, whether by helping the trio come up with strategy, luring suspicious gillies away from prime poaching spots at top sprinting speed over rough terrain (he modestly tells Leithen he’s “in fairly good condition at present after ten days on the Coolin rocks”), inciting his fellow journalists to besiege the Claybodys as a distraction, or causing maximum inconvenience (several times) by allowing himself to be nabbed in “John Macnab’s” place. He seems to relish the adventure the more he gets involved, becoming an integral part of the team. However, Crossby’s still a journalist at heart, well aware that “John Macnab’s” story will have far better legs (pun intended) than Harald Blacktooth’s and create an even bigger sensation in the papers, with him right at the centre of it. He also brings a wonderfully steady presence to the mix with his dry sense of humour and keen observational wit; he really could be Colin Anderson’s cousin.
Does John Macnab Succeed?
I’ll leave it to the reader to discover whether “John Macnab” is ultimately successful in the other two poachings, or whether any of the trio has to pay the price in money or humiliation. In the meantime, there are thrilling chases, narrow escapes, subterfuge, hunting and fly fishing, tabloid journalism, romance, a couple of marriage proposals, comedy, political speeches (also a feature of Buchan’s “The 39 Steps“), and lots of derring-do. Oh, and our trio definitely isn’t bored any more.
It’s no wonder “John Macnab” was televised because it comes across as extremely cinematic even as you’re reading it. It’s involving and fast-paced, with characters you come to care about, although I still don’t find poaching a very appealing subject. Despite that, I’m still very eager to see the 1976 version if at all possible, especially to see Mr. Malahide as the dashing young Crossby, running around all over the Scottish Highlands in his tweeds. However, I’d be equally pleased if Mr. Malahide was to record an audio book version of John Macnab instead. “Five Red Herrings” and his other audio works amply demonstrate his versatility with accents and character voices, and there are Scottish and English accents galore in John Macnab: everything from the rough speech of the gillies to Colonel Raden’s “Em-paaaah”-ish tones, to Fish Benjie’s slang and the more cultured speech of Crossby and the Macnab trio. I would love to hear what he could do with an audio version of this novel. Fingers crossed it might appear someday! 🙂