Normally, when I read a book from The List, I come to it with completely fresh eyes, knowing nothing at all about its contents. Not so for The Thirty-Nine Steps – I saw the play when I was a teenager. That said, I really had only the vaguest memories of it, so I wasn’t that far from a blank slate. In fact, reading the book had me confused as all heck, because the only part I remembered was the ending… and it was completely different! I guess that makes it all a wash. Anyway, this edition of John Buchan’s best-known novel (billed on the front cover as a “world-famous spy thriller”) was published in 1965, so it looks charmingly retro. The first editions were published fifty years before that, and it’s still in circulation; it’s pretty damn popular by all accounts, having been named in the BBC’S Big Read poll as one of the UK’s “best loved novels” as recently as 2003.
Guess what inspired John Buchan to write The Thirty-Nine Steps? A duodenal ulcer, and his daughter’s ability to count. I’m not even kidding! Buchan was pretty crook with the whole ulcer thingy, and while he was convalescing at a private nursing home in Broadstairs, he sleepily watched his daughter count the stairs. That gave him the title of the book, and he set about writing what he called a “shocker”: an unlikely adventure that keeps the reader right on the precipice of not believing that the series of events could actually happen. It’s also the first appearance of his every-man all-action hero, Richard Hannay, who went on to star in several more of Buchan’s works. Hannay is renowned for two things: his stiff-upper-lip, and his miraculous ability to get out of a tight squeeze.
The story kicks off with Richard living in London, and bored out of his mind (old people are wild – how could you be bored living in London?!), until a stranger shows up on his doorstep and asks to be let in. Turns out, he’s the weird upstairs neighbour, who has faked his own death to escape the Illuminati (or something). Richard’s been really bored, so he’s all “Why not? Come on in!”, just happily ignoring all of those alarm bells. They have a grand old time hanging out together for about twelve hours… until Richard goes to wake his new roommate, and finds him dead. Stabbed right through the heart. Ouch.
What’s an all-action everyman hero to do? Freak the fuck out, of course!
Richard figures that either the killers will come after him, or the police will – either way, it doesn’t look good. So, he does a runner. As he heads up into Scotland, he starts to piece together what’s going on. Turns out, the dead guy was a freelance spy who knew about an imminent plot to destabilise Europe, starting with an assassination of the Premier of Greece. Having nothing better to do, Richard takes on the dead guy’s crusade to foil the evil plot. He puts his thinking hat on, and manages to decipher the crazy encrypted notes in a book he took from the dead guy, managing to stay one step ahead of both the police and the anarchist plotters all the while.
Richard, through a strange combination of luck and nous, manages to save the day in the end (duh)… but the Greek guy still bites it. Pity.
It ain’t all beer and skittles, though. It never is! I detected more than a few hints of anti-Semitism and some gross racial profiling throughout The Thirty-Nine Steps; heck, it was the early 20th century, Buchan could hardly be expected to know any better, but his writing might still offend some sensibilities today if not forewarned. Also, there’s some clumsy dialect in the Scottish parts, but it wasn’t too bad. Look at it this way: if you can keep up with Scottish Twitter, you’ll be fine.
As I’m sure you can tell by now, The Thirty-Nine Steps has become the prototype for the “spy-on-the-run” thriller. Buchan’s archetypes have been used in almost every movie of the genre ever since. All the elements are there: escaping the grips of ignoramus authorities, narrowly dodging the “bad guys”, an ordinary bloke who has greatness thrust upon him and chucks his whole life in the bin to go save the world. You can see Buchan’s influence everywhere, even in recent best-sellers like The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared.
The Thirty-Nine Steps has been adapted for the stage and screen a bunch of times, but nearly all of these versions depart substantially from the text – and boy, was I grateful to hear that! Turns out, my memory isn’t failing me, and my confusion about the ending isn’t a symptom of some rare type of late-twenties dementia. The play that I saw years ago was actually based on the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film version, rather than the book, and that explains the different ending than I remember. Phew!
I’d throw this one in the same category as The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy: a good book to read when you need something light and just a little bit ridiculous. The soldiers in the First World War loved it for that very reason. One wrote to Buchan that “the story is greatly appreciated in the midst of mud and rain and shells, and all that could make trench life depressing”. So, if it can cure the misery of trench life, it can probably do wonders for your crappy day-job and lazy housemates.
My favourite Amazon reviews of The Thirty-Nine Steps:
- “Hilarious in a stuffy British way. BUt things haven’t changed that much. Take some friends on a canoe trip and see.” – Lewis F. Murphy
- “loved it bill” – bill
- “Gives good reading but many portions are boring. Can say not racy.” – G SUNDAR
- “excellant fun, hand no problems, wish i needed another and had the money. or maybe i do but i only need one. hi” – Leeroy151