The Thirty-Nine Steps (Buchan)

The Thirty-Nine Steps - John Buchan

This is another entry in the "classics I never read" category. I resist the temptation to add the "Canadian" tag to it just because John Buchan went on later (much later) to become the Governor General of Canada. Nothing could be less connected to Canada than this early spy thriller.


I found this lighter than I had expected and, not surprisingly a little too macho for my tastes, though I enjoyed the rough-and-tumble journey (by foot and various appropriated vehicles) through the Scottish countryside. The grim shadow of WWI, well under way by the 1915 publication of the novel, hangs over the political events of the plot (no contemporary reader would have any trouble recognizing the assassination of a foreign leader as the trigger for hostilities).


Like the James Bond books/movies, half the fun of this book is that the events completely strain credulity; unlike the James Bond books/movies, so does the sterling character of the protagonist! There's no gambling or womanizing for Richard Hannay. In fact, I am hard-pressed to think of any woman character at all, however minor, in the novel. (Apparently the movie versions, including Hitchcock's, introduced a love interest, which in my view is entirely extraneous, if predictable for the movies).


I found the repeated threat of aeroplane pursuit and detection, which pervades Hannay's flight from the bad guys, to be interesting, mainly because of the date of the novel. This book takes place during roughly the same time period as "Lawrence of Arabia", where the dread induced by flight as a tool of war is similarly touched upon. Since the majority of this novel is "man fleeing his enemies" (think The Fugitive, except that the motives for the flight are political rather than personal), that aeroplane actually hovers a fair bit.

The 39 steps of the title are in relatively unimportant, except in the last chapter or two of the plot, helping our hero figure out where the opposing spies are about to take their leave with their disastrous information about Britain's war plans.


Apparently this novel was a great hit with the men in the trenches, presumably serving as a distraction from rather than a reminder of their real-life peril.