JOHN BUCHAN. The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915).

04 Sep

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. 39Steps.jpgThere 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.]


Posted by on September 4, 2010 in British, Golden Age, Novel


3 responses to “JOHN BUCHAN. The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915).

  1. Skywatcher

    September 18, 2011 at 5:46 AM

    Buchan was a superb writer, and it is rather bizarre that he is remembered by a lot of people for one of his least typical books. Other Hannay novels are much longer, and have deeper characterisation and more complex plotting. GREENMANTLE, with its background of religious fanaticism, is a relevant story for out time, and THE THREE HOSTAGES, which covers the kidnapping of major political figures and the manipulation of the media, also feel very current.

  2. Simon

    November 10, 2017 at 9:17 PM

    Am so glad it’s not just me and that you find the book overrated. I’ve read it twice (could there be a more perfect example of the triumph of hope over experience?), and each time I’ve been charmed by the cozy London opening but put off by the increasingly contrived and unsatisfying plot. The 1935 Hitchcock film is definitely more fun; so is, I think, the genial 1959 Kenneth More remake. A third film version came out in 1978; starring Robert Powell, it was the first one set in period, yet I found Powell hard to warm to (though he’s done some superb audiobooks), and the film seems the least of the three.

    P.S. I do love the cover of the edition you’ve reproduced. Probably they should’t matter, but covers, for me, are crucial to my enjoyment of a book. It’s not a case of whether or not you can tell a book by one; the cover puts a spin on everything inside. I don’t think I’d have enjoyed “New Grub Street” (Penguin ’68) or “The Catcher in the Rye” (Signet ’61) nearly as much without those atmospheric covers.

    • Mike

      November 11, 2017 at 7:09 AM

      Thank you for your comment, Simon. And I agree with you about the deep effect that a book cover often has on one’s reception of a book.


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