From the Back: “John Buchan wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps while he was seriously ill at the beginning of the First World War. In it he introduces his most famous hero, Richard Hannay, who, despite claiming to be an ‘ordinary fellow’, is caught up in the dramatic race against a plot to devastate the British war effort. Hannay is hunted across the Scottish moors by police and spy-ring alike, and must outwit his intelligent and pitiless enemy in the corridors of Whitehall and, finally, at the site of the mysterious thirty-nine steps.”
I had never heard of The Thirty-Nine Steps or John Buchan before the book arrived at the used book shop where I work. But I’m willing to give anything a try that is designated a classic (as Oxford seemed to deem this one) and as it was a pre-WWI spy thriller, I figured this was going to be an amazing read. Then, like most books that I buy on impulse, it sat on my shelf for months.
Around Thanksgiving, I decided I needed a short read as I’m currently trying to get through some lengthier fare (Don Quixote, The Complete Sherlock Holmes, and The Complete Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft), and as The Thirty-Nine Steps was only 111 pages and was a thriller, I decided this was the ideal book. Unfortunately, I couldn’t really get into the thing.
The book is the introduction of Richard Hannay, a character that recurs in a few of Buchan’s novels. Hannay is lodging in London after returning from a stay in South Africa and soon finds himself on the run after an acquaintance is murdered in Hannay’s flat. It turns out this acquaintance, by the name of Scudder, was a spy who had unearthed an assassination plot. The anarchists behind the plot hope the assassination would destabilize Europe. Hannay flees to the north and has a series of misadventures as he attempts to avoid the murderers and the police who believe Hannay murdered Scudder.
While the book sounds exciting, the older style didn’t engage me much. I never really found Hannay an interesting character, and he would seem to develop the skills he needed quite suddenly, be they technical skills with explosives or special tactics in avoiding pursuit in the wild. In particular I found it odd that the leader of the anarchists would imprison Hannay in a barn that held explosives. This seems a poor prison as Hannay just blew his way out.
It wasn’t all bad, however. The aforementioned anarchist was actually quite interesting and provided a much-needed villain to the piece. Hannay had finally met his match, as illustrated in the following passage:
“There was something weird and devilish in those eyes, cold, malignant, unearthly, and most hellishly clever. They fascinated me like the bright eyes of a snake. I had a strong impulse to throw myself on his mercy and offer to join his side, and if you consider the way I felt about the whole thing you will see that that impulse must have been purely physical, the weakness of a brain mesmerized and mastered by a stronger spirit.”
The novel was originally serialized in Blackwood’s Magazine, so each chapter is a bit of a self-contained adventure within the larger narrative. It is quite easy to pick it up and read one section, then put the book down again. I didn’t often feel compelled to read “just one more chapter.” It’s a shame, for I truly wanted to like this book. The very concept is one that is revisited time and again in modern movies, a man wanted for a crime he didn’t commit. In the end, I think I enjoy the concept more than the book itself. I look forward to seeing how it has been adapted. I think it would make a fun movie, although, from what I have read, most adaptations have been rather unfaithful.
Final Verdict: So, I didn’t care much for the book. Buchan himself, however, seems to have lived a fascinating life. He was an administrator in South Africa and later a propaganda writer during WWI, spending the later years of his life as a governor general in Canada. If I ever come across his autobiography, I may check it out.