The Thirty-nine Steps by John Buchan (1915)

Famous ripping yarn, the first novel to feature the dashing hero Richard Hannay, I’d forgotten it is set in the last months of peace before the outbreak of World War I, with Germany the enemy and the threat of war hanging over every sentence. Buchan wrote it in bed while suffering from the duodenal ulcer which was to plague him all his life. It was serialised in Blackwood’s Magazine in August and September 1915 before being published in book form in October that year.

Plot

Richard Hannay is 37 and bored. He’s back from South Africa where he made his pile as an engineer and has returned to the old country. His neighbour Franklin Scudder accosts him with a cock and bull story about some kind of conspiracy to assassinate the visiting Greek premier which intrigues Hannay enough to let him stay in his flat for safety but, returning a day later, he finds Scudder dead. Hannay takes his pocket book and escapes to King’s Cross and thence by train to the Dumfries and Galloway region of Scotland, with a view of staying at liberty till he can return to London and warn the authorities.

This begins a long drawn-out chase and pursuit across Scotland countryside which sees Hannay sleeping rough, stealing cars, incongruously roped into giving election speeches, donning multiple disguises, getting captured by the baddies – who happen to have a Scottish base – and escaping by dynamiting his way out of his prison, before escaping back to London to warn the authorities and then leading them to the south coast resort which turns out to be the location of the thirty nine steps and foiling the enemies’ plans at the last moment.

The plot doesn’t bear too much examining. It’s not at all clear why he has to go to Scotland of all places to lie low. And it’s a whopping coincidence that the baddies happen to have their base in just the part of Scotland he decides to go hide in and that, in all the hundreds of square miles of heather to choose from, he happens to stumble straight into it.

And the initial mainspring of the plot – preventing the assassination of the Greek Prime Minister – which drives the flight to Scotland and all sorts of complications, not only fails but is casually cast aside (his assassination is mentioned in one throwaway line towards the end) to be replaced by a completely new thread: Now a member of the Black Stone gang impersonates the First Sea Lord in order to attend a high level meeting about Britain’s sea defences and it is only because Hannay happens by almighty coincidence to be sitting outside that very meeting, that he recognises the imposter as a member of the baddy gang (even though none of his erstwhile colleagues do!) which sets in motion the final chase to the villa on the south coast.

The Thirty-Nine Steps

The Hitchcock movie completely rewrites the plot, not least to lumber Hannay with an attractive female co-star for most of the film (no women at all in the original). In the movie the Thirty-Nine Steps is a secret organisation of spies dedicated to overthrowing Britain etc. In the novel they are the steps from a coastal holiday house down to the beach where, at high tide, 10.17pm, the German spy carrying plans of Britain’s war preparations will be picked up by boat and spirited off to the Fatherland. In the book the climax comes when Hannay captures the spies as they try to descend the steps; in the movie it comes in a crowded theatre in the West End.

The shilling shocker

Buchan is candid in his preface to friend about the genre he was writing in:

You and I have long cherished an affection for that elemental type of tale which Americans call the ‘dime novel’ and which we know as the ‘shocker’—the romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible. (Preface)

And the characters are well aware of the type of text they’re appearing in (just as Philip Marlowe feels he’s in a dime novel and Alistair MacLean’s characters refer to Hollywood dialogue and ham acting of the baddies they’re up against):

”The Black Stone,’ he repeated. ‘Der Schwarze Stein. It’s like a penny novelette. (Ch 7)

I wonder when this genre was named, when it became known: were Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes novels ‘shockers’ and ‘dime novels’ in 1888? [No. See Wikipedia link below.] And who created, who were the godfathers of the mythos of glamorous travel and adventure? [Stevenson, Haggard, Kipling.]

The novel includes an innkeeper with frustrated literary ambitions bemoaning his boring life and wishing he saw more of the world – a character which allows Buchan to situate the text relative to its forebears.

‘Nothing comes here but motor-cars full of fat women, who stop for lunch, and a fisherman or two in the spring, and the shooting tenants in August. There is not much material to be got out of that. I want to see life, to travel the world, and write things like Kipling and Conrad. But the most I’ve done yet is to get some verses printed in Chambers’s Journal.’  (Chapter 3)

By God!’ he whispered, drawing his breath in sharply, ‘it is all pure Rider Haggard and Conan Doyle.’ (Ch 3)

All this was very loose guessing, and I don’t pretend it was ingenious or scientific. I wasn’t any kind of Sherlock Holmes. But I have always fancied I had a kind of instinct about questions like this. (Ch 9)

Local colour

The novel is as interesting for the insights it gives into life at the time as for the ‘plot’: London, as so often, as at the start of the Sherlock Holmes stories, for example, is portrayed negatively:

I returned from the City about three o’clock on that May afternoon pretty well disgusted with life. I had been three months in the Old Country, and was fed up with it. If anyone had told me a year ago that I would have been feeling like that I should have laughed at him; but there was the fact. The weather made me liverish, the talk of the ordinary Englishman made me sick. I couldn’t get enough exercise, and the amusements of London seemed as flat as soda-water that has been standing in the sun. (Ch 1)

Anti-semitism The text contains some shockingly anti-semitic comments. They aren’t incidental but intrinsic to Buchan and Hannay’s ideology, the casualness with which they sum up and categorise nations, whether the Germans or Boers or, as here, Jews.

When I asked why, he said that the anarchist lot thought it would give them their chance. Everything would be in the melting-pot, and they looked to see a new world emerge. The capitalists would rake in the shekels, and make fortunes by buying up wreckage. Capital, he said, had no conscience and no fatherland. Besides, the Jew was behind it, and the Jew hated Russia worse than hell.

‘Do you wonder?’ he cried. ‘For three hundred years they have been persecuted, and this is the return match for the pogroms. The Jew is everywhere, but you have to go far down the backstairs to find him. Take any big Teutonic business concern. If you have dealings with it the first man you meet is Prince von und Zu Something, an elegant young man who talks Eton-and-Harrow English. But he cuts no ice. If your business is big, you get behind him and find a prognathous Westphalian with a retreating brow and the manners of a hog. He is the German business man that gives your English papers the shakes. But if you’re on the biggest kind of job and are bound to get to the real boss, ten to one you are brought up against a little white-faced Jew in a bath-chair with an eye like a rattlesnake. Yes, Sir, he is the man who is ruling the world just now, and he has his knife in the Empire of the Tzar, because his aunt was outraged and his father flogged in some one-horse location on the Volga.’ (Ch 1)

Casual racism which none of us would dream of today.

It rang desperately true, and the first yarn, if you understand me, had been in a queer way true also in spirit. The fifteenth day of June was going to be a day of destiny, a bigger destiny than the killing of a Dago. (Ch 4)

No sex please we’re British No women characters. The word ‘woman’ occurs just six times in the text: there’s a fat woman in the 3rd class railway carriage to Scotland, then a few women shopkeepers. This is emphatically a man’s world.

Style

As you can see Buchan’s prose style is perfect for the job, clear and crisp and unhesitating (compare and contrast the hesitancies and infelicities which mar almost all Alistair MacLean’s books).

Natural scenery It is easy to overlook but Buchan describes natural scenery with a quick practised eye which the setting of rural Scotland gives him plenty of opportunity to do.

If I had not had such an anxious heart I would have enjoyed that time. It was shining blue weather, with a constantly changing prospect of brown hills and far green meadows, and a continual sound of larks and curlews and falling streams. (Ch 7)

And since a good deal of the novel amounts to a prolonged chase across the Dumfries & Galloway region of Scotland, there is page after page of wonderful nature description.

Pukka His style is not only clear and lucid and swift. It is larded with the attitude and vocabulary of the upper-class public school chap of the day, revealed by the pukka, posh phraseology of almost every sentence.

It was about the beastliest moment of my life, for I’m no good at these cold-blooded resolutions. Still I managed to rake up the pluck to set my teeth and choke back the horrid doubts that flooded in on me. I simply shut off my mind and pretended I was doing an experiment as simple as Guy Fawkes fireworks. (Ch 6)

Nostalgia The combination of pukka phraseology and crisp confident description, often of a kind of rural idyll for which we 21st century city dwellers pine, along with his depiction of a simpler, more innocent world, drenches the novel with nostalgic appeal, over and above the supposed thriller elements.

I found a pretty cottage with a lawn running down to the stream, and a perfect jungle of guelder-rose and lilac flanking the path. (Ch 7)

I think it’s the clarity and evocativeness of these descriptions, along with the Antiques Roadshow innocence, which overcome our qualms about his racism and misogyny, and help conceal the wild coincidences of the plot. Above all it’s his flashing swift style which makes the books still so readable a century after their first publication.

The road led through a wood of great beeches and then into a shallow valley, with the green backs of downs peeping over the distant trees. After Scotland the air smelt heavy and flat, but infinitely sweet, for the limes and chestnuts and lilac bushes were domes of blossom. Presently I came to a bridge, below which a clear slow stream flowed between snowy beds of water-buttercups. A little above it was a mill; and the lasher made a pleasant cool sound in the scented dusk. (Ch 7)

Related links

Cover for the first edition of The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1915)

Cover the first edition of The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1915)

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