The Thirty-Nine Steps

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Thirty-Nine Steps [Bookshop (Penguin), Amazon (Birlinn), Publisher (Penguin), Publisher (Birlinn)] by John Buchan.

Buchan The Thirty-Nine Steps

Far and away the most printed and read of John Buchan’s novels, The Thirty-Nine Steps was also made into three different films and a feature-length television adaptation, along with adaptations into other media. First published in 1915 while Buchan was working for the British War Propaganda Bureau, it is set in England and Scotland on the eve of World War I. The protagonist Richard Hannay is informed of an alleged international conspiracy, and then must flee both the conspirators and the police, since he has been framed in the murder of his informant.

Buchan classed the story as a “shocker” and it pioneered the use of tropes that have become staples of the “thriller” and “suspense” categories in entertainment, principally that of the fugitive hero. The telling is very fast-paced, over ten chapters that I think I read in a total of four or five sittings. It keeps its narrative tension right up to the final page, with a mere three sentences of denouement.

The book has hardly any women characters with proper names and none with repeat appearances. Hannay says, “A man of my sort, who has travelled about the world in rough places, gets on perfectly well with two classes, what you may call the upper and the lower. … But what fellows like me don’t understand is the great comfortable, satisfied middle-class world, the folks that live in villas and suburbs” (97). His capacities are tied into this sort of alternating social adaptability and dysphoria. I don’t doubt that many “comfortable, satisfied middle-class” readers have derived excitement over the last century from reading of Hannay’s mingling with both the elite and the impoverished in this story, and that those readers have largely been men.