The Thirty-Nine Steps (by John Buchan)

Although my mother was quite a fan of the early 20th century Scottish writer John Buchan, I had never got around to reading any of his books. I suppose the ‘thriller’ genre put me off; even though I knew his books were considered classics, and not particularly gory, I prefer to read character-based family saga fiction. But after losing my mother a couple of years ago, I picked up this little volume from her shelves, knowing it was one of her favourites and that she dipped into it regularly.

I’ve finally sat down to read ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps’, and what a treat it was! It’s more an adventure story than a thriller, although the ending is quite tense. It was published 100 years ago, so inevitably it’s dated, but that didn’t pose a problem; I’ve read and enjoyed Jane Austen and those of her era which are a lot more old fashioned. This is more in the styel of PG Wodehouse or Conan Doyle: terse, but fast-paced, and oddly light-hearted.

The book, as is stated in a brief note at the beginning of my edition, was deliberately written as what the author calls a ‘shocker’ - an exciting adventure story where the hero keeps on escaping by the skin of his teeth, rather like the comic strip stories that appeared in weekly magazines. And that’s just what it is. Those who criticise it for being implausible (or just plain silly) have rather missed the point.

And the author does it very well. Richard Hannay is the protagonist, an engineer who has been living in South Africa, who has returned to the UK. He’s been living in London for a while but is utterly bored with the socially active lifestyle he finds himself adopting. He has plenty of money, but nothing to make life more interesting. Then, as he’s about to give up his flat and leave, a stranger arrives on his doorstep with a worrying story about international politics and intrigue, one which means the stranger is in danger of his life…

Hannay gets involved, and over the next few weeks his life is quite the opposite of mundane. He flees to Scotland, both from the British police and from enemies of the country. He takes refuge with a series of unlikely people, dons many disguises, and - as with the kind of stories the author is emulating - manages to escape each scenario by cleverness or luck, before finally returning to London in the hope of sorting everything out. It’s no spoiler to say that he escapes; the story is told in the first person, so we know that he must be alive at the end.

It’s not a character-based story, but by seeing everything through Hannay’s eyes we get to know him quite well. I felt a bit sorry for some of the people he meets, but they’re mostly caricatured. Coincidences abound, but that’s part of the rules of this kind of story. And the writing is good - fast-paced, exciting, with just enough description to set the scene. In many places there are stereotypes and politically incorrect commentary, but that’s par for the course with this era and style of writing.

‘The Thirty-Nine Steps’ is just over 100 pages long so I read it in a few hours. The final chapters, which are more about politics, went a little over my head, but that didn’t matter at all. The ending is rather abrupt; I’d have preferred a bit more detail, but the final paragraph slotted extremely well into the realities of world history.

This isn’t a thriller in the modern sense of the word, but it’s one of the earliest of the genre, and may have inspired more recent novels on similar themes. It has to be taken with a very large pinch of salt, but still, I would recommend it to anyone interested in literature from this era, teenager or adult.

Continually in print in many versions, including ebooks (although it’s worth checking reviews first; some, apparently, have been quite poorly formatted). This novel has also been made into various films.

Review copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

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