The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan8 April 2008
I hadn’t planned to post another work of fiction quite so soon, but this book jumped the queue on me. Mainly because I finished it in about two hours on a rainy day’s commute, and it made for a fast review.
The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan
In mid-1914, the London newspapers are full of ominous reports from the Continent, but Richard Hannay’s uneasiness has little to do with the problems of world affairs. Having made a small fortune in the mines of Rhodesia, he has come to London to see the ‘Old Country’ but finds himself more bored and restless as the days past. Finally, he resolves that he will give London one more day, but if nothing interesting happens to keep him in England then he will leave on the next boat for South Africa. As fortune would have it, upon returning to his flat that night Hannay runs into his upstairs neighbour, an American by the name of Franklin Scudder. Scudder seems badly shaken, and after Hannay gives him a drink to steady his nerves he reveals that he has just had to fake his own death in the flat upstairs — he is being pursued by a very dangerous anarchist group whose plans he has stumbled upon, and the little he reveals to Hannay indicates that this group intends to assassinate a high-ranking Greek politician and spark a massive war that will soon engulf all of Europe. Hannay, more intrigued by the American’s wild story than he initially lets on, agrees to let Scudder hide in his flat for the time being. But when he returns home a few days later and finds Scudder stabbed to death on the floor of his living room, he realises that he is now the anarchists’ next target. Hannay flees London, barely one step ahead of both the police and the anarchists, and sets off on a mission to prevent the assassination from taking place. Yet as he leads his pursuers on a grand chase across England and Scotland, the true nature of the plot becomes more and more clear to him…and, far from completing his mission, he soon finds that it will take all of his wits just to stay alive.
Every fiction genre has to start somewhere, and The Thirty-Nine Steps was one of the first modern adventure-espionage novels, the canonical ancestor of most anything written by Ian Fleming, Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, Dan Brown, and others of their ilk. Modern readers with seemingly more sophisticated literary tastes may find Buchan’s plot conventions to be a little on the thin side, yet compared to some of the abovementioned authors, Buchan’s story is an utter paragon of brevity and fast pacing, with a constantly moving plot and not a shred of unnecessary information. Knowing readers may smirk a bit at how Richard Hannay seems to have just the appropriate combination of personality traits, skills, and knowledge to make him successful in his mission — from a knack for decoding secret messages to an awareness of how to set off dynamite — but again, the means by which Buchan works these character traits into the plot requires far less suspension of disbelief to keep reading than is required by some of the abovementioned authors. What matters most of all is the central theme: that Richard Hannay is a resourceful, clear-headed, extraordinary-ordinary man who alone can stand up to the faceless and unseen enemies and do what those in government and other positions of authority cannot.
When looking at early examples of a particular genre, it is worth noting the story aspects that would later become conventions — and in this case, one aspect that might be easily overlooked is the use of technology as a weapon against which the lone hero must strive. On multiple occasions, Hannay’s pursuers use an airplane (or rather, aeroplane) to hunt for him, and it’s worth considering just how new and thrilling this would have seemed to a reader who picked up a copy of this book in 1915. Airplanes had been invented scarcely more than a decade before the events of the novel, and were a very experimental form of combat even towards the end of World War I; this was advanced technology in Buchan’s day, as advanced as rockets and lasers and satellites and computers would be for the action heroes of a later era. As a forerunner of its kind, The Thirty-Nine Steps sets a particularly high standard to follow, one that has been imitated with varying degrees of success over the years. And though Buchan would later write further accounts of the increasingly fantastic exploits of Richard Hannay, this novel stands by itself as a classic thriller tale of pre-war intrigue.