Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily
John Buchan wrote The 39 Steps in 1915 while convalescing with a duodenal ulcer. It is set in 1914 in the lead up to World War I and puts mining engineer and general adventurer, Richard Hannay, on the run in the borders of Scotland. There is a very good chance you will have seen Alfred Hitchcock’s film of the same name, which is loosely based on this story.
We first meet Richard Hannay three months in to his return to the Old Country from southern Africa. He’s made his ‘pile’ out in Rhodesia and decides to return to England, but is disappointed from the very first and at the point we join him he is giving it one more day to find some reason to stay.
And reason he gets.
On returning to his flat one evening he is accosted by the man who lives in the top floor flat of his building. The man asks to come in, and there begins Hannay’s introduction to pre-WWI espionage. Franklin Scudder introduces a wild and barely plausible tale with the wonderful throw-away line,
‘Pardon,’ he said, ‘I’m a bit rattled tonight. You see, I happen at this moment to be dead.’
While clearly he is not dead at this point, he shortly fulfills his own prophecy with a knife through the chest, pinned to the floor of Hannay’s flat. Left with the choice of face the police and a murder charge, or follow up on the fanciful tale that Scudder tells him, he chooses to flee London and head to the remotest part of the Isles he can find – Galloway in the borders of Scotland. Here we get to enjoy multiple run-ins with various local characters and watch Hannay bounce from one piece of bad luck to good, to incredulous, eventually back to bad luck and then to good. Eventually we return to England, first to London and then to Kent and the mystery of the 39 steps is revealed.
It is certainly a dated work. The language is almost Wodehousian, but not quite yet. You find lovely words like aquascutums presumably from the business of the same name, and knickerbockers. Despite the amount of pages devoted to Hannay’s scurrying around the countryside it is surprisingly still short enough not to get too boring. By the time he finally heads south again, having eluded the spies chasing him, you are glad to see things moving on as his luck is nothing short of outrageous for most of the flight.
My volume was 174 pages long which I read comfortably in one day. I am not a fast reader. This is not complicated writing, nor overly descriptive in any way. It is a bald adventure story where we learn almost nothing of note about the characters other than that which is required to move the adventure along. I felt rather like I was reading the bridge between the Conan Doyle adventures of Sherlock Holmes and those of John Le Carre’s spymaster, George Smiley. It was neither, in my opinion, of the quality nor graceful style of the other authors but there were elements of both clearly visible in the writing. It had quite a few tinges of Victoriana, yet also looked ahead to what would eventually become the modern spy genre.
Buchan apparently called the style of his book a “shocker”, which dear Wikipedia notes,
He described a “shocker” as an adventure where the events in the story are unlikely and the reader is only just able to believe that they really happened.
I think Mr Buchan had a good handle on his writing. It is a good and fair description of the story. Barely believable, but just enough of an end-of-fingernail grip on reality to keep you reading until the end.
If you have a spare afternoon or evening and want to see the starting shoots of a genre, then this is the book for you.