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The Thirty-Nine Steps

The Thirty-Nine Steps is sometimes referred to as the 'original thriller'. And it's only one of many wonderful books written by John Buchan.
Article text
I’ve often thought that castaways on Desert Island Discs should ask for the complete works of John Buchan as the ‘book’ they’d take to the island – if it was allowed. The reason being that Buchan was a prolific author and journalist, writing action adventures, histories, short stories, memoirs, biographies and historical novels, so you’d have plenty to read and lots of variety.

Buchan is often credited as the creator of the ‘thriller’ genre. First published in 1915, The Thirty-Nine Steps is still lauded as one of the best action adventure novels and is the first of five books which feature Richard Hannay.

Other adventure stories feature Sir Edward Leithen (5 books), Dickson McCunn (3 books) and a further 16 standalone novels, which include Prester John (1910) and The Free Fishers (1934). And Buchan’s non-fiction works include a history of World War 1 and biographies of Sir Walter Scott and Oliver Cromwell.

The Thirty-Nine Steps
I can’t imagine many people haven’t heard of The Thirty-Nine Steps. The book has been in print continuously since it was first published over 100 years ago, and the story has been adapted into several films and TV dramas. It is the quintessential adventure, involving an international conspiracy, espionage, murder, a frantic and exciting chase, and “an ordinary fellow” (Richard Hannay) who, despite all the odds, fights his way through to the truth.

The book isn’t long – 100+ pages – but it’s action from start to finish. Hannay is a South African mining engineer, living in London and bored to the teeth. He stumbles into a conspiracy by accident and the adventure begins.

It’s true to say that every adaptation of The Thirty-Nine Steps has changed the story. The Hitchcock film, for example, introduced a heroine who spent a lot of time handcuffed to Hannay as he tried to escape capture. A recent TV adaptation had a female protagonist who turned out to be working for the security services. The Thirty-Nine Steps has even enjoyed a long and successful run as a comedy adventure on the London stage.

None of these adaptations have spoiled the story particularly, but they do skew people’s perception of the original book. If you ask anyone about the plot, more often than not they’ll recount one of the film versions.

I read The Thirty-Nine Steps every few years. The book is pocket-sized and ideal to take on a train or bus journey, or read in a waiting room. I love it because it’s well written, fun and exciting. You get pulled into the plot very quickly and it doesn’t let go.

There are plenty of critics nowadays who wonder if the book deserves its ranking as a classic. They refer to archaic language, insidious anti-Semitism, and lightweight characterisation. But that seems to me to be missing the point. More than a century after it was written, who are we to criticise Buchan for not meeting today’s notions of correct language and behaviour?

And yes, the language is sometimes archaic and resonant of comic books. Words like ‘jolly’ are used without irony. Men are referred to as ‘fellows’; a story is a ‘yarn’, and there are mentions of ‘dagos’ and ‘Jews’. But Buchan is writing of his time, in his time – and so of course the language is of that age. Moreover, The Thirty-Nine Steps fairly reflects the anxiety of the time and the fear of impending war. The conspiracy involves several European countries and portrays a world and political atmosphere we can only imagine, however many history books we might read. Buchan was living in them.

To my mind, one of the best aspects of Buchan’s writing is his description of landscape. The place where the story is happening is always described with as much attention to important detail as the action. When Hannay is being chased across the Scottish moors you have a clear vision of the countryside, from the streams and grasses to the scent of the heather crackling beneath his feet. Buchan paints wonderful pictures with words.

So, if you haven’t read any of Buchan’s adventure stories do try them. Accept that they were written a long time ago but enjoy them for what they are. The Thirty-Nine Steps is a bite-sized classic that would be a great place to start.
Cornish Eskimo

NB:
Local author, Ursula Buchan, is John Buchan’s granddaughter. She’s just published Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps: A Life of John Buchan which has received wonderful reviews. What’s more, she’s donated a copy to Oundle Library. So, if you want to find out more about John Buchan (and there was so much more to his life than writing books!) do borrow the biography of this great man.

You don’t have to ‘join’ Oundle Library’s Crime Fiction Book Group and we don’t have a set reading list. Just come along if you can! Each month we chat about the books and authors we’ve enjoyed, and there’s no pressure to be clever or interesting about what you’ve read. It’s a great way to expand your reading list and find new books to try. Our next meeting is at Oundle Library on Friday, 26 April @ 2.30pm. Free to attend.