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