This maiden adventure of Richard Hannay, the British colonial whom circumstances repeatedly thrust into the role of national savior, manages in its brief span (158 large-type pages, in one edition) to include a rich sampling of spy-story paraphernalia. There is the mysterious stranger who dies suddenly and leaves behind a cryptic notebook, along with an extraodinary tale involving a powerful enemy, a secret plot, and a race against time. There is the jaunty and resourceful hero who must elude not only foreign evildoers, but also the benighted authorities of his own country. There are narrow escapes, improvised disguises, and treacherous men in high places. There are ominous references to a group known as “the Black Stone” and to a man with hawklike eyes. Significantly, there is no romantic entanglement to distract Hannay—a feature that only heightens the juvenile spirit that marks his derring-do. The book, universally acknowledged as a classic of popular literature, is nonetheless overrated: Its plotting is slapdash, its characterization shallow. Where Buchan does excel is in his description of the tors, glens, and moors of Scotland, which provide Hannay with an unforgettable backdrop against which to test his mettle.
[ADDENDUM: Alfred Hitchcock, in his sprightly film version of The 39 Steps (the title spelling varies from edition to edition), gave Hannay (Robert Donat) a love interest—a woman played by the sprite-ly Madeleine Carroll. Donat and Carroll develop a Nick-and-Nora-like sparring-before-spooning relationship that lends a grown-up edge to the proceedings. Hitchcock also tightened the plot of Buchan’s story and added a few striking scenes and images (the man with the missing finger, for example) that weren’t in the original. Indeed, it’s arguable that the Buchan work would have few if any readers today if Hitchcock hadn’t memorialized it, and improved upon it, in cinematic form.]