I haven't seen the film versions of The Thirty-Nine Steps (there were three of them, the Alfred Hitchcock being the first in 1935), but I read John Buchan's novel yesterday. Perhaps I should call it a novella, though, because it has little over one hundred pages. I'm not going to go into the perceived differences between the novel and the film, because there are obviously a lot. This writeup will be solely about the original novel, The Thirty-Nine Steps, written and published in 1915.


In which genre would I place the novel? Well, it's an adventure story, not the sort for children or teenagers, but for adults. It's a case of good guys against bad guys; and since the novel was written in 1915, it's the English versus the Germans. The novel contains action, suspense, mystery and even pre-WW1 politics; and a wonderful main character named Richard Hannay.


Since the novel is in first person, the only information the reader learns of Hannay himself is through his thoughts or his conversations with others. At the beginning of the story, Hannay has just returned to London after being a mining engineer in South Africa for a few years. He begins to muse about how "the Old Country" is considerably more boring than he had remembered. In fact, he makes a vow:

"I would give the Old Country another day to fit me into something; if nothing happened, I would take the next boat for the Cape."


Of course, something happens. A mysterious man arrives at Hannay's door, begging shelter and protection. This man is a sort of spy, as it transpires, who is being hunted for information that he has discovered. He tells Hannay everything, in the hope that our hero will help him with his mission. Hannay doesn't really believe any of the tall tale, until the next day when he returns home:

"My guest was lying sprawled on his back. There was a long knife through his heart which skewered him to the floor."


From that moment, Richard Hannay's life in in peril. He is wanted by the police for his guest's murder, and he is chased by an even more sinister network of enemy spies because he knows too much. Hannay escapes to the deepest rural Scotland, where he spends weeks evading capture in the Scottish moors, before it is safe for him to return and convince the government of the fiendish plot that he has uncovered.


Buchan writes what he knows, having been born and raised in Scotland and having worked in South Africa for many years. Hannay (who appears in four other Buchan novels) is the original James Bond; a man who, without any experience of being a spy, manages to survive the length of the novel despite several dangerous situations. He speaks fluent German, he is a master of disguise, his knowledge of explosives comes in handy, and his sharp mind keeps him one step ahead of his enemies.


All in all, The Thirty-Nine Steps is a thoroughly good read. It's full of action and adventure, mystery and suspense, but it's also one of the classics. Buchan writes a believable character, a thrilling plot, and even adds a touch of humour now and again. The most fascinating aspect of the novel, in my opinion, is the ease with which Hannay is able to assume other identities and personas, confusing his enemies at every turn. Buchan gets quite philosophical about this issue; and it is essentially this, rather than the "good versus evil" theme, that the novel is about: the ultimate skill of the spy. As Hannay says:

"A fool tries to look different: a clever man looks the same and is different."



All quotes taken from The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

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