The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

December 4, 2016 Leave a comment Go to 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…

  1. December 4, 2016 at 10:17 pm

    I think he’s both satirising the Scottish accent and a drunk man in that passage, to be honest. You’ve reminded me that I need to reread this book, as its blend of chasing around the countryside and humour should help with my own writing. And it’s been far too long. And the Hitchcock film is not quite the same.


    • December 4, 2016 at 11:21 pm

      I haven’t seen the film, I can’t compare it to the book. But the book style’s fantastic.


  2. December 4, 2016 at 10:36 pm

    Probably trying to be Scottish. Bet you would like Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male


    • December 4, 2016 at 11:24 pm

      Grant confirms it’s Scottish and since Buchan was a Scot, I guess he knew about the language!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. December 5, 2016 at 1:55 am

    I saw the stage show of this last year and it was hilarious! All the parts were played by just three actors and, of course, that added a kind of farcical element to proceedings. I really loved it.


    • December 5, 2016 at 10:33 pm

      I saw the stage version too, something like 5 years ago. I had a great time, it was lively and very funny. There were farcical elements too, I wonder if it’s the same play.


  4. December 5, 2016 at 9:25 am

    Gosh, this takes me back to my teenage years when I read this book after receiving a copy from my grandfather. He was a huge fan – naturally I devoured it too! Great review. I like the way you’ve highlighted the humour in Buchan’s writing – as you say, it’s an important element of his style.


    • December 5, 2016 at 10:39 pm

      It’s full of humour, something I really like in literature. The Thirty-Nine Steps seems to be more famous in the UK than here. I’ll ask around if someone’s read it but I don’t remember hearing someone talk about it or seeing it on a shelf in a bookstore.


  5. December 5, 2016 at 7:43 pm

    I love The 39 Steps so much. The stage show is also fantastic.


  6. December 6, 2016 at 5:55 pm

    I never thought of reading this but it sounds good. I’ve seen the movie but wasn’t as keen on it as on other Hitchcock movies.


    • December 6, 2016 at 9:43 pm

      It’s excellent, really. And short: a one sitting thing for a winter afternoon. I’d like to see the film now that I’ve read the book.


  7. December 8, 2016 at 3:25 pm

    Drunk Scotsman with the drink exacerbating the accent.

    It does sound good, though I may just rewatch the movie which I barely remember.

    I read a Buchanan a while back (perhaps pre-blog since I’ve no write-up of it) but I chose really badly somehow and it was about the threat to British interests posed by a particularly sophisticated black African man and how an African with the intelligence of a European could prove a dangerous leader to his less sophisticated compatriots. It had, it’s fair to say, aged poorly. It rather put me off him, but possibly unfairly as he wrote a fair bit and my impression is that I may just have made a bad choice of book.

    The humour makes it much more appealing.


    • December 8, 2016 at 10:12 pm

      I can see how the one you read might be difficult to enjoy nowadays.
      This one is really good and the style is what makes a difference between a good chase novel and this one.


  8. December 8, 2016 at 3:26 pm

    Turns out there’s a free kindle version, so I’ve picked it up. My poor TBR pile…


    • December 8, 2016 at 10:10 pm

      You’ll enjoy it. It’s short, good for a one-sitting winter read.

      My TBR and yours have something in common: they grow, and grow, and grow…


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