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The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

December 4, 2016 16 comments

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1915) French title : Les trente-neuf marches.

Here was I, thirty-seven years old, sound in wind and limb, with enough money to have a good time, yawning my head off all day. I had just about settled to clear out and get back to the velt, for I was the best bored man in the United Kingdom.

buchan_39Boredom is a dangerous feeling for it can lead you to rash decisions and that’s exactly what happens to Richard Hannay. He’s at home one night when one of his neighbours drops by and starts telling him a farfetched tale about spies and war conspiracy. His visitor whose alleged name is Scudder has just staged his own death to vanish from the sight of his enemies. Hannay finds him entertaining and only half listens to him. He doesn’t pay attention to details and doesn’t quite believes him. Hannay accepts to hide Scudder even if he thinks he might be slightly unbalanced.

Four days later, Hannay comes home to a corpse: Scudder has been murdered in his flat. Hannay is between a rock and a hard place: Scudder’s murderers might find him and the police might not believe his story or in his innocence. He eventually makes a decision:

It took me an hour or two to think this out, and by that time I had come to a decision. I must vanish somehow, and keep vanished till the end of the second week in June. Then I must somehow find a way to get in touch with the Government people and tell them what Scudder had told me. I wished to heaven he had told me more, and that I had listened more carefully to the little he had told me. I knew nothing but the barest facts. There was a big risk that, even if I weathered the other dangers, I would not be believed in the end. I must take my chance of that, and hope that something might happen which would confirm my tale in the eyes of the Government.

The rest of the novel is about his flight and I won’t go further into the plot, a lot of readers have probably read this or seen the film by Hitchcock.

The Thirty-Nine Steps is a page turner, a wonderful chase across the country. The suspenseful storyline is enough to keep reading but Buchan’s style amplifies the pleasure. His sense of humour lightens the atmosphere and makes the reader smile even when the hero is in a delicate position with his foes on his heels.

That was one of the hardest job I ever took on. My shoulder and arm ached like hell, and I was so sick and giddy that I was always on the verge of falling. But I managed it somehow. By the use of out-jutting stones and gaps in the masonry and a tough ivy root I got to the top in the end. There was a little parapet behind which I found space to lie down. Then I proceeded to go off into an old-fashioned swoon.

This is the essence of the book: adventure mixed with humour. Written in 1915, The Thirty-Nine Steps is a seminal work for crime fiction. Hannay is a man who’s at the wrong place at the wrong time. A bad decision –to welcome Scudder in his flat—throws him in the middle of a dangerous game, one he’s not armed for, one that could be fatal. He’s a character with a strong moral compass. His patriotism pushes him to try to save the world and risk his life. He could be Charlie Hardie’s great-grand father. It would be too long to point out all the details that show how significant it is for the history of crime fiction. I’m sure there are excellent thesis about that. Instead, I’ll finish this post with a question. I read The Thirty-Nine Steps in English and came across this passage:

The trouble is that I’m not sober. Last nicht my dochter Merran was waddit, and they danced till fower in the byre. Me and some ither chiels sat down to the drinkin’, and here I am. Peety that I ever lookit on the wine when ist was red!

So puzzling that my note was “Is it Scottish language or drunk language?” If someone could enlighten me…

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