The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

Hide and Seek…

😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s May 1914 and war is looming over Europe. Richard Hannay has returned from South Africa and is finding England dull. He’ll give it another couple of days, he decides, and if nothing exciting happens, he’ll return to one of the outposts of Empire. But then a man he doesn’t know turns up at his door seeking help. Scudder tells him that he’s discovered a conspiracy, one that, if it succeeds, will shake the world. It’s four weeks until he can reveal what he knows to the authorities, though, and he begs Hannay’s help to keep him hidden till then. When Scudder is then killed, Hannay finds himself possessed of a secret and Scudder’s coded notebook, running from the conspirators who want to kill him and the police who want to arrest him for Scudder’s murder. And so the chase is on…

Buchan described the book as a “shocker” and that’s basically what it is – what we’d now call an action thriller. Published in 1915, its first audience knew that whatever Hannay did, he didn’t succeed in preventing war, so that couldn’t be the point of the conspiracy or of the attempt to defeat it. Not unnaturally, the Germans don’t come out of it well, and unfortunately neither do the Jews (no Jews actually appear in it, but they’re still referred to in what I wish were outmoded anti-Semitic terms) nor the Southern Europeans – thankfully, it’s been a while since I heard the word “Dago” being used. This is always a problem with books of this era and sometimes I find it easier to overlook than others, I think based on whether the author simply uses the words or whether it feels as if he really means to be derogatory. I found Buchan borderline – it bothered me, but not so much I couldn’t look past it and enjoy the story.

The story itself is mostly a simple chase round the moorland in the south-west of Scotland, a place Buchan knew well in real life. This centre section between Scudder’s murder and the dramatic dénouement forms the bulk of the book, and is divided into chapters each of which forms a little story on its own. (In the introduction, there’s an extract from a letter from an early reader, a soldier in the trenches in France, thanking Buchan for this format since it allowed him to read and assimilate a chapter any time he got a moment of calm. “The story is greatly appreciated in the midst of mud and rain and shells, and all that could make trench life depressing.”) Each mini-story involves someone Hannay meets during his travels – a road-mender, an innkeeper who would like to be an author, an aspiring political candidate, etc. Most of these are educated men, so that the bulk of the book is in standard English, but in the occasional working-class encounter Buchan gives us some excellent Scottish dialect.

Hitchcock’s version. Woman? What woman?? There is no woman!

The framing story of the conspiracy I found frankly incomprehensible for the most part, especially at the beginning when Scudder is clearly referring to all kinds of people and events that were probably familiar to a contemporary audience but mostly weren’t to me. It does become clearer at the end, although it also all becomes rather silly. However, I’m not a soldier in the trenches of WW1 nor even a worried mother waiting at home, so the thrilling aspects of trying to put a spanner in the works of the nasty Hun don’t resonate with me as they would have done at the time. In truth, I was finding it a bit tedious in the middle – there’s an awful lot of coincidence and near-miraculous luck, and it’s one of those ones where the hero just always happens to have the knowledge he needs: how to break codes, for example, or how to use explosives. But when it reaches its climax and I finally found out what the conspiracy was all about, I found myself nicely caught up in it (once I had switched off my over-heating credibility-monitor).

John Buchan

I’m a bit ashamed to say that I actually found the introduction in my Oxford World’s Classic edition more interesting than the book! Christopher Harvie, Professor of British and Irish Studies at the University of Tübingen in West Germany, gives the usual mix of abbreviated biography and literary context, and does so in clear and accessible English without any academic jargonese. What a fascinating life Buchan had! I had no idea! As well as writing a zillion books, he held all kinds of posts in his life, from Lord High Commissioner of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, to Member of Parliament, to Governor of Canada. Along the way, he also travelled extensively through South Africa, worked in intelligence and rose to be the Director of Intelligence in the Ministry of Information in 1918. (I know any Scottish readers, especially my siblings BigSister and ForeignFilmFan, are currently shaking their heads in disgust at my ignorance, but there it is. Neither of them can play Three Blind Mice on the xylophone – we each have our different areas of expertise in this life.)

Overall, then, a good read if not a great one. And, as I suspected, it turns out I hadn’t read it before – I just knew it from the various adaptations, none of which have stuck very closely to the plot of the book. I’m now keen to re-watch the ancient Hitchcock version to see how it compares – memory tells me I enjoyed it considerably more…

Book 29 of 90

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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58 thoughts on “The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

  1. I’m glad you found a lot to like about this, FictionFan, despite the problems you found. It’s always hard for me to decide which attitudes in a book I can forgive because they are contextually-bound, and which I can’t. And there is no algorithm for it. At any rate, this is an interesting thriller, especially if you keep in mind it’s very much of its time.

    • Yes, I never know how these outdated attitudes will take me either, and I can never quite pin down exactly why they sometimes bother me more than others. But they didn’t spoil this one for me, I’m happy to say! And I enjoyed it more once I’d worked out what the plot was actually about…!! 😉

  2. Such an interesting review FF! I really enjoy the Hitchcock film but I did wonder how on earth all that running around would work in a novel without becoming painfully dull. It sounds as if it was partly successful. Not sure I’m in a rush to read the book but you have made me want to watch the film again!

    • Thank you! 😀 Yes, I can quite see why Hitch added a girl and a romance – I definitely felt those chase scenes needed something to kind of pull them together and give them a purpose. But it got better once I finally found out what the plot was all about! I do want to watch the film again now though…

  3. I haven’t read this one, but I think I’d agree with you, especially the part about derogatory words. I know we have to read things in context, but sometimes it’s hard to realize just how much certain things have changed (or so we hope!) By the way, you really can play Three Blind Mice on the xylophone? *clapping with delight*

  4. It’s a long time since I’ve read it but I love the Hitchcock film. Robert Donat wears a very lovely coat in it as I remember and there’s John Laurie as a wicked possessive husband and Hitchcock has a lot of fun with the man and woman being handcuffed together!

    • I love the film too, especially for John Laurie, though I keep waiting for him to say “We’re doomed, Captain Mainwaring – DOOOOOMED!” Haha – I must watch it again soon… 😀

  5. Fantastic review, FF! I love how you highlighted what didn’t work for you, but also found it overall enjoyable enough for four stars. I think at the very least I should watch the Hitchcock adaptation! 😊

    • Thank you! The good thing about these old books is you can be totally honest about them without fear of offending the author! 😉 The film is great fun, though it’s one of his early ones, so looks pretty creaky now, I think. But all Hitchcock films are worth watching… 😀

  6. I did read this many moons ago and so your review jogged my memory which I admit is a little bit hazy! I’m glad you managed to get past the overheating credibility monitor so that you enjoyed the uncovering of the conspiracy. I do think that we tend to forget these books were written for the readers of the time (the author wasn’t probably anticipating that students would be writing essays about their work in hundred years time) so it’s good that you put the middle section into the context of those readers even if it didn’t quite work as well for you.

    • I wasn’t sure but once I started I quickly knew I hadn’t read it before, since I didn’t have a clue what the conspiracy was all about! Yes, these little intros are great for reminding us of what was happening in the world and to the author at the time the books were written – I find it makes me more open to accepting outdated attitudes or what seems like an old-fashioned style of story now. Haha – I wonder what Buchan would think if he knew his books were still being discussed… 😀

  7. It’s unusual, for me at least, when a movie is better than the book. I haven’t read this book though I well remember the movie. With Hitchcock, it’s not surprising that he improved the story. He was a true master of suspense. Enjoyed reading your review.

    • Thank you! 😀 I usually enjoy the book more too, but I must admit Hitchcock films are often better than the books – he just changes anything in the plot he doesn’t like. And adds a blonde! 😉

  8. I read this a long time ago and enjoyed it. Then recently I listened to an audiobook version and if you just take it at face value as a story it’s a well-paced and really decent thriller.

    • I think I’d enjoy it more on a re-read – I did find it frustrating that I didn’t understand what the conspiracy was about for most of it, especially since that meant I kept thinking of the various film versions. And I think Hitchcock was quite right to add a blonde… 😉

  9. If this book was being made into a movie now, it would probably star Tom Cruise. I loved how fast it read, but still don’t know why nobody used tracker dogs to find Hannay on the moors…
    Three Blind Mice, huh? I’m impressed 😀

    • Ooh, if Tom was in it, I’d watch it!! Ha – yes, I wondered why the police didn’t bring dogs too. Probably because the book would have been too short then… 😉

      My proudest achievement! 😂

  10. I have to admit to never really having the urge to read this classic and in fact I knew little to nothing about its plot either. And after reading your thoughts I have even less urge to read it! However I would definitely be up for giving the Hitchcock film a go. 😀

  11. I remember this book as a kid. It was on a recommended reading list at school. I quite liked the book then, but not really sure if I would enjoy it now as an adult.

  12. I thought the Hitchcock version was great fun. The spy is the woman, so I was surprised to read that a man showed up. There’s a lot of great scenery, if I remember correctly, and the plot makes more sense than what you’ve described here. I hope you do a movie review and choose a winner!

    • It’s years since I watched it but I seem to remember enjoying it more than the book! But then, I love Hitch – and I did think the book was in desperate need of a blonde… or even a brunette would have done! I might do a comparison, but I keep saying that and then never getting around to watching the films…

  13. I agree the Hitchcock version is the best film adaptation although of course Hitchcock took plenty of liberties with the plot, such as introducing a female character. I’m obviously biased because I’m a huge Buchan fan but if you feel tempted to try another of his books can I suggest either of my personal favourites – Mr Standfast or Sick Heart River. The latter was the last book he wrote and was actually published posthumously.

    • Ha – it wouldn’t be a real Hitchcock film if there hadn’t been a blonde! Thank you for the recommendations – I will read more of his stuff, so it’s good to know from a fan which ones stand out, since he was so incredibly prolific!

  14. Ah yes, this sounds like a good action thriller! Finally, none of this ‘and on that fateful day’ business, at least the books of yesteryear were a bit more creative!

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