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The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

Cover image © Penguin Classics
A few years back, my father went through a phase of reading a newspaper that was giving away free DVDs. For a few weekends the DVDs were all old Alfred Hitchcock films, and included the original 1935 version of ‘The 39 Steps’ starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll. I decided to get my hands on a copy of the novel on which the film was based.

Following on from my trend of reading James Bond novels, The 39 Steps by John Buchan is, in many ways, a precursor to those novels. The flipping between fast-paced action and moments of tension, all set against a backdrop of espionage and counter-espionage, is very reminiscent of The Cold War world of Ian Fleming’s character.

The novel follows Richard Hannay, a man living in London, struggling to get into the rhythm of life there after having been based in Rhodesia for a period of time. 

The action starts when Hannay is approached by an American gentleman, later identifying himself as Franklin P. Scudder, who states that there is a conspiracy to assassinate Karolides, the Greek premier, during an upcoming visit to London. He also reveals a plot by a German spy ring called Black Stone who intend to steal military information prior to the outbreak of war in Europe.

Hannay offers to hide Scudder in his flat, but to little avail. Scudder is murdered, and, fearing for his own life, Hannay decides to escape for remotest Scotland. So with “a well-used tweed suit, a pair of strong nailed boots, and a flannel shirt with a collar,” along with “fifty pounds … in sovereigns in a belt which [he] had brought back from Rhodesia” and Scudders pocket-book filled with notes and cipher, he heads to London St Pancras, having consulted his Bradshaw’s Guide.

Needless to say, his attempts to evade the attention of the malevolent German spy ring fail and both the local police and a German plane pursue him – the most familiar features of the story for lovers of the early Hitchcock film adaptation.

This story, in the same manner as Ian Fleming’s bond series around thirty years later, is wildly fantastical at times, but the author describes it in his dedication as a “shocker” – “the romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible.” 

Probabilities aside, the plot is excellently thought-out and the writing so exact and direct that you never get a sense that he is padding out the novel. Furthermore, Hannay is a very old school hero – a gentleman, educated and well travelled – and is actually likeable in a way that sometimes James Bond could only dream of being, despite the occasional similarities between them.

Published during 1915, when the First World War was still young, the novel was said to have been appreciated by soldiers in the trenches with one officer writing to Buchan stating: “The story is greatly appreciated in the midst of mud and rain and shells, and all that could make trench life depressing.”

Overall, this novel is worth a read. Those who have watched the films will see some similarities, but may also appreciate the more serious nature of the original Hannay compared to Hitchcock’s more comedic interpretation.

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