July 31, 2011

John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps


John Buchan was one of founding pioneers of the spy novel. A prolific author, he wrote spy thrillers, biographies, reviews, historical romances, nonfiction including a history of World War I, and poetry. Buchan is best known for his 14 thrillers, especially the four novels featuring Richard Hannay: The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), Greenmantle (1916), Mr. Standfast (1919), and The Three Hostages (1924). The Thirty-Nine Steps is still popular today, appearing on The Mystery Writers of America’s Top 100 Mystery Novels of All Time, the British Crime Writers Association’s Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time, and the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association’s 100 Favorite Mysteries of the 20th Century.

Buchan’s training and wide-ranging career provided him with the knowledge and firsthand experience needed to write spy thrillers. An Oxford educated lawyer trained in the classics, Buchan published 8 books before age 25, spent a couple of years in South Africa supervising reconstruction after the Boer War, was a Times war correspondent on the Western Front, worked as the Director of Information for the Intelligence Corps and then Director of Intelligence in the Ministry of Information during Word War I, was a partner in the publishers Thomas Nelson & Sons, was a director of the news agency Reuter, worked as an MP for the Scottish Universities, and was later appointed Governor General of Canada (O’Brien 1998).

The Thirty-Nine Steps was Buchan’s first best-seller. Still in print today, this spy thriller was made into 3 separate films, the most famous one directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The book is a combination mystery novel, adventure story, and spy thriller.

The novel begins in the spring of 1914 with Europe on the verge of war. Richard Hannay, a mining engineer visiting London, meets an American (Frederick Scudder) who has uncovered a plot to murder the Greek Premier and steal British naval plans. Hannay believes Scudder’s story and conceals him in his flat. A few days later Scudder is killed. Hannay foresees that he will be both hunted by Scudder’s enemies and suspected of murder by the British authorities. Convinced that he must carry on Scudder’s work, Hannay develops a plan to flee England and hide in Scotland.

The Thirty-Nine Steps is a fast-paced pursuit-and-chase novel. Hannay is relentlessly hunted not only by German spies who wish to kill him but also by British authorities who intend to imprison him for murder. He risks blowing himself up to escape capture, undergoes a bout of malaria, and is stalked by land, sea, and air. When an innkeeper hears Hannay’s story, he exclaims, “By God! . . . It is all pure Rider Haggard and Conan Doyle” (33). And it is to adventure writers such as Haggard, Doyle, Stevenson, and Kipling that Buchan owes his strongest debt.

Pursued by a group of spies called the Black Stone (whose name recalls Stevenson’s “Black Spot” in Treasure Island), Hannay revels in his role as adventurer. Bored before he meets Scutter, he prefers a life of danger to one of complacency. After the hunt begins, he admits, “I was beginning to enjoy this crazy game of hide-and-seek” (57). It is his nimble resiliency, quick-thinking, and numerous disguises that save his life.

What is particularly appealing about the novel is the way an ordinary individual adopts an extraordinary role and becomes heroic. When Hannay decides to take over Scudder’s mission, he tells the reader:
He was gone, but he had taken me into his confidence, and I was pretty well bound to carry on his work.

You may think this ridiculous for a man in danger of his life, but that was the way I looked at it. I am an ordinary sort of fellow, not braver than other people, but I hate to see a good man downed, and that long knife would not be the end of Scudder if I could play the game in his place. (20)
Hannay is not just a hero, but an epic hero: the fate of nations rests on his shoulders. Setting a fictional story amidst real-life events as pivotal as the outbreak of World War I gives the narrative a sense of urgency and momentous consequence. The topicality of events also provides the novel with sociological significance that raises it above a simple mystery story.

Buchan, John. The Thirty-Nine Steps. 1915. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

O’Brien, George. “John Buchan (1875-1940).” In Mystery and Suspense Writers: The Literature of Crime, Detection, and Espionage, edited by Robin W. Winks, vol. 1: 97-111. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1998.