The Thirty-Nine Steps

“I felt the sense of danger and impending calamity, and I had the curious feeling, too, that I alone could avert it, alone could grapple with it.”

The Thirty-Nine Steps is one of the plays at the Walnut Theatre this season, so in anticipation I finally got around to reading the original spy thriller by John Buchan. I’ve never seen any of the film adaptations either, so I went into the story completely fresh.

Richard Hannay is an ex-military man who has now retired to London. Just when he believes that his life can get no more mundane, his upstairs neighbor Scudder accosts him with a story of great political import. Apparently a plot is afoot to assassinate a crucial Greek leader, a move calculated to hurl the continent towards war. Only Scudder knows the details of the plan, but must lie low since the enemy knows he knows. Suddenly Hannay finds himself fleeing to rural Scotland to preserve both the information and his life, with Scudder’s enemies and the local police hot on his trail.

Because his story seems too bizarre to believe without evidence, Hannay must rely on instinct and luck to determine whom he can trust, all the time under the watchful eye of an aeroplane circling above. He survives solely by using his wits and peak physical condition. Though he describes himself often as an “ordinary man,” his experiences in the service and in South Africa have primed him well. He can crack a code, play a role, and in general “use [his] brains as far as they went.” He is full of both ability and effort despite his modesty.

When I think “thriller” and “espionage” I tend to picture non-stop action, with the focus on discovering and stopping some sort of plot. The Thirty-Nine Steps is in some ways more like an adventure story; the notes mention slight nods to Robert Louis Stevenson. Hannay’s desperate crossing of Scotland is episodic in nature and focuses mainly on evading his pursuers, even though there are some high-speed chases and explosions. Since most of the plot was handed to him, he does not need to take the initiative to figure things out and confront the Germans until near the end of the novel.

My copy is one of the Oxford World’s Classics, which lays claim to being the “only critical edition” of the book. While I found Christopher Harvie’s introduction to be an interesting read after the book, his Explanatory Notes seemed for the most part completely unwarranted. Apparently (according to sources cited in the Introduction) John Buchan has entire literary journals devoted to him, and these scholars delight in retracing Hannay’s precise journey, but I care little for footnotes explaining exactly which train station and line he is using at various points. I don’t need military background on every experience Hannay references (in fact, it detracts from the reading), and even one unfamiliar with American slang could probably deduce that when a Kentucky man references the “Blue-Grass country” he means home. Yes, the book is a classic, and an important entry in the development of the genre, but not everything need noted.

I’m much more well-read in the history of detection novels than suspense, and most of my spy reading has been Helen MacInnes stories, so I was unfamiliar with the precursors mentioned. Apparently, shortly after the start of WWI, Buchan was ordered to a long bed rest and wrote this “shocker” as a means of amusement. He had written many historical and military pieces beforehand, so the book draws slightly on some facts, and later played an important role in war propaganda. He seems a very interesting character and had long careers in both publishing and politics. His biography might be an interesting read, in addition to the subsequent Richard Hannay books.

This was a short read, about a hundred and twenty pages without the introduction, and was also my final book for 2010. It is on both the Guardian and 1001 Books Lists.

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Published in: on January 1, 2011 at 4:25 pm  Comments (4)  
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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I read this book this weekend as well! I posted on it today, so it was fun to read your perspective! I had the B&N edition with an interesting introduction but no footnotes. I think in this case I didn’t mind going without them! It did feel very much like an adventure story, so I wonder if things change in the later Hannay books. I’d love to see the play–you’ll have to post on your experience as I’d love to hear about it. I do have the movie to watch with Rupert Penry Jones but I didn’t realize they made so many changes. I plan on giving Helen MacInnes a try, too. Do you have any title suggestions?

  2. Danielle,
    I’ll have to look at your review; it’s fun to see what others think of a book!.
    Apparently the play is based on the Hitchcock film rather than the book, as it includes a romantic interest. My uncle saw it and said it also has a lot of comic moments.
    As for Helen MacInnes, I read a lot of her books several years ago and can’t recall any of the distinct plots. They were definitely suspenseful, though.

  3. […] He has fantastic courage, stamina, and wits, a combination that sometimes reminded me of Hannay in The Thirty-Nine Steps, but he is also a really nice guy. Even though his focus is on reconnaissance, he assists and […]

  4. […] been adapted to a musical, and is the first show next season at the theater I go to. Just as with The Thirty-Nine Steps, I feel obligated to read it first. [Did I ever mention what I thought of that? It's different from […]


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