The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1915)

This is John Buchan’s first ‘shocker’. He dedicated the book to his friend and business partner Thomas Nelson (of Thomas Nelson Publishing):

My dear Tommy,

You and I have long cherished an affection for that elementary type of tale which Americans call the ‘dime novel’ and which we know as the ‘shocker’ – the romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible. During an illness last winter I exhausted my store of those aids to cheerfulness, and was driven to write one for myself. This little volume is the result.

So, the intention is clear! Buchan did not invent the spy thriller, but was choosing to write in a well-established genre. (The award for first spy thriller probably goes to Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands (1903)) But Buchan did it so well that this is the novel that is remembered.

The story begins with our hero, Richard Hannay, newly arrived to London from Bulawayo. Hannay is a gentleman, but not really an Englishman: we are told that his father ‘brought me out from Scotland at the age of six, and I had never been home since; so England was a sort of Arabian Nights to me’ (1). However, Hannay is unimpressed with London. On the day the story begins, he is ‘pretty well disgusted with life’ (1). Luckily he will soon be harbouring a strange man in his flat – a man with wild tales of international conspiracy and murder – a man who will soon be murdered himself.

Suspected of committing the murder, Hannay goes on the run to Scotland. What follows is a fast-paced chase, filled with derring do, peril and extremely unlikely coincidences. The murdered man, Scudder, had told Hannay that there was a plot to murder the politician Constantine Karolides in order to start a war. He mentioned too, something called the Black Stone, and an ‘old man with a young voice who could hood his eyes like a hawk’ (12). Scudder hasn’t told Hannay the full story, but this man who can hood his eyes is the man he needs to beware.

Hannay did remind me of Bond: strong, resourceful, unencumbered by personal relationships. He is the lone man the government needs to fix their mess! He reminded me most of Bond while on the run: he ‘breakfasted off a whisky-and-soda and some biscuits from the cupboard’. The breakfast of a real man!

It is a great read. My husband, who rarely reads novels, couldn’t put it down. For myself, the mistake I made was that I did put it down. It is a short novel and once the momentum is lost it is hard to regain. Best read in as few sittings as possible, I think. Too much time off and the extreme silliness becomes harder to swallow.

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6 thoughts on “The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1915)

  1. I read this many moons ago and *did* find it a real page-tuner. Yes, it’s far-fetched etc but great fun! (tho’ I do think The Riddle of the Sands is a better book!)

  2. Pingback: Greenmantle by John Buchan (1916) | Reading 1900-1950

  3. Pingback: Mr Standfast by John Buchan (1919) | Reading 1900-1950

  4. Pingback: The Island of Sheep by John Buchan (1936) | Reading 1900-1950

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