John Buchan: The Thirty-Nine Steps

The Thirty-Nine StepsThe Thirty-Nine Steps
John Buchan
First published in the UK 1915, Hodder & Stoughton
This edition: 2011, Polygon
ISBN: 9781846971983
112 pages

I think John Buchan has a similar problem to Enid Blyton: It is difficult to read them without being influenced by decades of comic reinterpretations of their work as shallow, jingoistic gung-ho nonsense.

The critic Stuart Kelly in the introduction to this edition makes a fair attempt to give the novel depth: ‘the finest piece of propaganda of its era […] transcends being mere propaganda’. The reputation of The Thirty-Nine Steps as the epitome of English boy’s own adventure, with a stiff-upper-lip hero ranged against a dastardly enemy, is undermined by the fact that neither author nor hero are English. It was written as a ‘shocker’, but had a serious intent as it was published when Britain was at war. He also argues convincingly that the fairly arresting antisemitism in the opening chapter isn’t Buchan’s, but that of a character who is debunked later in the book.

So, I resolved to try to take the book seriously.

Our hero Richard Hannay, having made his fortune in Bulawayo, has returned to the Old Country to relax and enjoy spending it. After three months he is bored out of his mind and is considering going back to Africa when adventure comes knocking. A neighbour called Scudder barges into his rooms with an incredible tale of espionage and assassination. Hannay welcomes the diversion and agrees to let Scudder hide out there. Scudder tells him that he is a British agent on the tail of an organisation called the Black Stone which is plotting to kill Karolides, the Greek Premier. Incredibly, Hannay believes him but doesn’t really pay much notice…

I did not give him very close attention. The fact is, I was more interested in his own adventures than in his high politics.

He gives the matter closer attention when he finds Scudder dead, skewered to his floor with a knife. He knows that Scudder’s enemies will be after him too, on the basis that he knows their secrets. He also knows that the police will want to question him about the body in his room. However, Hannay is more than happy to pick up Scudder’s mission and run with it. He decides to go on the run for three weeks, until the date of the assassination draws close and he can reappear to greatest effect.

It was going to be a giddy hunt, and it was queer how the prospect comforted me.

The giddy hunt takes him to the wilds of Scotland, and journeys by foot, bicycle, train, and a 40 h.p. touring car. He is always (well, mostly) one step ahead of the seemingly tireless enemy and their aeroplane. His African scouting skills stand him in good stead, but he has much more than his share of luck. Everyone he meets happens to be about his size, allowing for multiple costume changes – handy for a master of disguise.

– Mild spoiler alert –

And what about being locked up by the Black Stone – in the room where they keep the explosives?! I bet someone had some explaining to do after that…

– OK, carry on –

Hannay is a very public school hero:

I left the War Minister to cross-examine him, for I felt he would think it cheek in me to talk.

and he is equipped with a becoming, sportsmanlike modesty

All this was very loose guessing, and I don’t pretend it was ingenious or scientific. I wasn’t any kind of Sherlock Holmes. But I have always fancied I had a kind of instinct about questions like this. I don’t know if I can explain myself, but I used to use my brains as far as they went, and after they came to a blank wall I guessed, and I usually found my guesses pretty right.

He is at his most Hannayish towards the end of the book, when he finds time for a spot of fishing at the very last minute:

I spent a warm and peaceful afternoon. We caught between us about twenty pounds of cod and lythe, and out in that dancing blue sea I took a cheerier view of things.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you foil a plot.

Why should a contemporary reader pick up The Thirty-Nine Steps? It’s entertaining, a quick read, and an interesting glimpse at the genesis of the particular type of thriller most recently encountered in Hunted. Even stripped of the relevance and urgency that a reader in the Great War would have felt when reading it, there still remains a readable and pacy novel. Plus it has lovely descriptions of the Scottish landscape:

Behind me was the road climbing through a long cleft in the hills, which was the upper glen of some notable river. In front was a flat space of maybe a mile, all pitted with bog-holes and rough with tussocks, and then beyond it the road fell steeply down another glen to a plain whose blue dimness melted into the distance. To left and right were round-shouldered green hills as smooth as pancakes, but to the south—that is, the left hand—there was a glimpse of high heathery mountains, which I remembered from the map as the big knot of hill which I had chosen for my sanctuary. I was on the central boss of a huge upland country, and could see everything moving for miles. In the meadows below the road half a mile back a cottage smoked, but it was the only sign of human life. Otherwise there was only the calling of plovers and the tinkling of little streams.

Certain readers might want to lay in some Scotch and make it the basis of a drinking game. There’s at least a glass in every chapter, starting with the ‘whisky-and-soda and some biscuits from the cupboard’ Hannay has for an early breakfast in his flat.

I am entering this book in the Jolly Old England category in the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge.

Final destination: Back to the library

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Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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16 Responses to John Buchan: The Thirty-Nine Steps

  1. Pingback: The Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge | Past Offences

  2. I can’t help it, Rich; every time I think of this novel I think of the Hitchcock movie. I know it’s quite different to the book, but it’s interesting how those kinds of things just get associated in one’s mind. I think it is indeed one of those thrillers that really gives one a look at the genesis of the type of novel; you’re spot on with that point. Thanks for the excellent review.

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    • westwoodrich says:

      Thanks Margot. For me it’s the version where Robert Powell as Hannay hangs off the clock-face of Big Ben. Apparently the book and the two films all had different ’39 steps’.

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  3. TBM says:

    I recently read this and enjoyed it. Yes, I knew the story, mostly, beforehand, but it was fun to read one of the original man on the run books. And I found Hannay to be funny. Some might think it dated, but that was part of the fun for me. After reading this I watched the Hitchcock film and loved the film. Can’t really compare the two since they are so different.

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  4. MarinaSofia says:

    This and ‘The Riddle of the Sands’ are still worth reading, even if they feel a little dated and Boys’ Own/British Empire-ish. They convey so well that period of paranoia, uncertainty and hidden menace.

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  5. Teriffic review Rich – the Enid Blyton comparison really made me smile but you are right and its great that you have looked at the book as well as the need for some context – well done mate – made me want to re-read the book (and it’s not even my favourite Buchan).

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  6. Great review Rich – made me smile remembering what a weird experience reading this book is – half ridiculous, half thrilling.

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  7. Skywatcher says:

    To be fair, I think that Buchan was aware of the ridiculous aspects of the book. He was a very cultured, educated man, but he did enjoy the freedoms that the thriller gave him. It’s worth tracking down some of his other books, such as HUNTINGTOWER, where the hero is not the breezy Hannay, but a retired, portly Scottish Grocer. You might also like THE POWER HOUSE, which was published before 39 STEPS and was obviously something of a dry run for it. The hero is a rather dry, comfort loving lawyer who is plainly very annoyed that it has come down to him to save ‘civilisation as we know it’. Actually, just read more Buchan. He was a superb author, and deserves to be remembered for a lot more than 39 STEPS. Some of the later adventures of Richard Hannay (GREENMANTLE/MR STANDFAST/ THE THREE HOSTAGES/ ISLAND OF SHEEP) are even better than this book.

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