J. Storer Clouston was responsible for over 30 books, ranging from novels to history texts, as well as plays and numerous magazine articles, in the course of a 30-year writing career. Two of his books, His First Offense and The Spy in Black, were made into major motion pictures by directors Marcel Carné and Michael Powell, respectively. John Storer Clouston was born in Cumberland, England, the son of Sir T. S. Clouston, in 1870. Educated at the Merchiston Castle School, Edinburgh, and Magdelen College, Oxford, he served as a subcommissioner of the agricultural section of the National Service Department for Scotland during the First World War.
Throughout his life, Clouston had a special interest in the Orkney Islands, where he also made his home for most of his life. He served as Convener of Orkney from 1930, and Chairman of the Orkney Harbor Commissioners from 1935 -- his writings included texts on the history of the Orkneys and also some fiction set there, most notably The Spy in Black, the best known of Clouston's numerous espionage tales and thrillers. Originally published as a serialized thriller in the New York Tribune Sunday review in 1918, the story about German agents plotting against the British fleet anchored at the Orkney islands captured the imagination of readers on both sides of the Atlantic. And, in a manner similar to that of John Buchan's The 39 Steps, the story was later immortalized on the screen in the hands of one of the masters of British cinema. Clouston's other books included Vandrad the Viking, The Adventures of M. D'Haricot, Colonel Bunker, The Prodigal Father, Tales of King Fido, Carrington's Cases, and Beastmark the Spy. One of his most successful works was the thriller The Lunatic at Large, which yielded several sequels, owing to the demand from the public.
The years 1937-1938 marked Clouston's biggest impact on movies. Director Marcel Carné, working from a script by Jacques Prévert, brought Clouston's story His First Offense to the screen under the title Bizarre, Bizarre (aka Drôle de Drame), considered one of the greatest French films of that decade. And in 1938, director Michael Powell and screenwriter Emeric Pressburger were first teamed up together at London Films, on a movie adaptation of The Spy in Black. With Powell's blessing, Pressburger threw out almost everything in the book except the Orkney Islands setting and some details of the basic plot. The resulting film, about a World War I German plot to sink the British fleet at anchor in the Orkneys, starring Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson, was so good that distributor Alexander Korda held it back from release for nearly a year, issuing it only as the outbreak of a new World War was becoming imminent. It was already a hit in England, and Hobson and Veidt were established as a compelling screen couple, when fate took a hand.
The film's plot concerned a World War I German U-boat 29 and the attempt by its captain to sink the British fleet; in late 1939, a modern, real-life German U-29 sank a British aircraft carrier off the Orkneys, one of the first major naval actions of the war in European waters, and the event became the subject of headlines around the world. American distributor Columbia Pictures retitled the movie U-Boat 29 and instead of offering an exciting British B-picture, found itself with a huge hit -- a top-of-the-bill action film spiced with romance and topicality that was one of the company's biggest successes of the year. And although they didn't participate in the profits, Powell and Pressburger also had a major trans-Atlantic hit to their credit, a good beginning to an extraordinary creative partnership that endured across a dozen major films and 18 years. What Clouston felt about the changes to his story is anyone's guess, as he remained busy writing as well as working in government affairs into his seventies. He died on June 23, 1944, in London, at age 74 -- ironically, the films Bizarre, Bizarre and The Spy in Black have become far better known in the ensuing decades than his original novels; Powell's The Spy in Black has even exerted an influence on such relatively recent movies as Richard Marquand's Eye of the Needle (1981).