The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1875 – 1940) was first published in book format in 1915. It has been the source material that has been adapted in numerous ways; the most famous being the Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film. Beyond adaptations of varying faithfulness, the story has also influenced all sorts of adventure, espionage, and thriller stories and characters. The novel itself contains ten short chapters. My Dover Thrift edition was a spare eighty-eight pages.
The story begins in May 1914 on the cusp of the First World War (accepted start date: July 28, 1914). The work was not Buchan’s first work – he wrote a number of non-fiction and fiction works prior to this novel – but he alleged that it was his first “adventure/shocker” novel. It is the first of five novels starring the character Richard Hannay. After the second novel, Greenmantle, Buchan enlisted in the British Army and was commissioned as a lieutenant serving in the Intelligence Corps.
There are a number of similarities between the character Hannay and Buchan himself. Obviously, Buchan made Hannay to be a very robust character, but he still drew from his own personal experiences. Hannay is Scottish and enjoys strenuous outdoor activities, hunting, and when he is in London experiences boredom. In many ways, Hannay is the macho archetype of a “man’s man.” Hannay spent time in Africa where he worked as a mining engineer. He often uses his experiences throughout the novel to make sense of his predicaments and challenges. He thinks things through with a healthy balance of Sherlock Holmes and Allan Quatermain. Sherlock Holmes’ first appearance is 1887 and Allan Quatermain’s first appearance is 1885, so clearly Buchan could have had either or both in mind while writing.
We meet a relatively bored and underwhelmed Hannay located in London on a May evening. The first thing we are told about the character is that he is disgusted with life. He is vexed by the weather, the conversation, and the entertainments. But luckily, that very night as Hannay is entering the rooms of his flat, a bearded blue-eyed stranger seeks him out for assistance. The man is granted entry into Hannay’s rooms where he begins to tell Hannay a seemingly far-fetched and outlandish story of political intrigue and scheming. Principally, Constantine Karolides is in danger.
The thing about the stranger’s (Scudder) story is that it sounds to the reader just as it may have sounded to Hannay. Names, places, hints and clues all swirl around in a way that makes it seem like there is a dark and abiding danger. There is enough fact to make the story seem true, but not enough detail to have the story really knowable. A lot of espionage stories contain a super-complex weaving of threads that dance around the shadows. This story is told in a frantic way to a very bored Scotsman. Hannay (and us readers) can hear the story and either place our bets on Scudder’s story being too far-fetched because he is off his rocker, or he is telling the truth and if there are gaps in the story they will make sense as we go along.
Hannay is motivated to accept Scudder’s story by the fact that the latter winds up murdered in Hannay’s flat.
The novel progresses rapidly. I think most readers expect that the espionage-story told by Scudder and relevant intrigue will be developed. Instead, the majority of this novel involves the fugitive adventures of Hannay as he avoids the London police and the conspirators of Scudder’s tale. The adventures take Hannay far from London and into the countryside. Time and again Hannay avoids detective and capture by using any number of skills that fugitives have recourse to. Ultimately, Hannay ends up seeming like Batman or John Carter (of Burroughs’ works). He is tireless, he is strong, he is determined. And I think this hero character agitates readers who expect their characters to be horribly flawed and bumbling.
I like heroes who are heroic. I like that they defy odds and survive. Many readers may complain that this is “unrealistic,” and that they don’t like pure adventure stories. Well, I can see such a point, but in this particular novel, I think Hannay is a charmer. He sees his “mission” through to the end. Now, the end of this novel is rather weak and sudden. It does not feel all that satisfying if readers were looking forward to saving the British Empire from the threat of the Black Stone. However, if readers were cheering a bored Scotsman who loves adventure – well, its a good yarn and well worth reading.
This is less an espionage novel than an adventure novel, but readers who enjoy the tradition of Allan Quatermain and John Carter should find this entertaining. And I do intend to read the next book in the Hannay series.
*** Roughly a month after posting this review, The Guardian posted a podcast episode about this book. Apparently I read this novel nearly on its 100th year anniversary. The Guardian Books Podcast of Aug. 14, 2015. ***