The Thirty-nine Steps by John Buchan

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The Thirty-nine Steps by John Buchan

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Category: Crime (Historical)
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: The classic spy story of Richard Hannay’s attempt to avoid a charge of murder, foil a foreign plot and prevent a war is an unchallenging, but intelligent read.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 160 Date: June 2011
Publisher: Polygon
ISBN: 978-1846971983

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Ask anyone about The Thrity-nine Steps and I guarantee they'll be able to tell you it's a spy story with Richard Hannay at its heart. Most people will be able to tell you how it starts. But when you ask, Yes, but what ARE the 39 Steps? most people will falter.

Not all, there's always some-one who will know. But, most.

The problem is that the story has been filmed many times and each time, in order to keep it fresh, to maintain the measure of suspense important to the success of the book, the screenwriters have felt the need to change the ending. Sometimes subtly, sometimes bizarrely. Buchan wasn't averse to including the improbable in his tales of adventure, mystery and crime – but I'm fairly sure even he never envisaged Robert Powell hanging by his fingertips from the minute hand of the Palace at Westminster clock tower. (He'd never have called it Big Ben. He'd have known better.)

The films, good, bad and indifferent, cloud the issue. In this case that's all to the good, if you haven't read the book. Knowing what the thirty-nine steps are -and, no, it isn't a recovery programme for the hard-to-treat addicts - doesn't render the book pointless or unreadable, but certainly it's much more fun if you really can't remember and have to try to work it out all over again along with our hero.

Said hero, for those totally in the dark, is one Richard Hannay. Scots-born, at the age of six he was taken by his father to Africa – Buchan is not always consistent in his mentions of the continent. One minute it will be Bulawayo, the next South Africa. Either way: now at the age of thirty seven and having made a modest "pile" he is back in London – and heartily sick of it after only a few weeks.

A quick character sketch shows us a man with brokers to deal with his investments, a club at which to dine when not being invited to make up the numbers or provide colonial colour at dinner with folk who are mere acquaintances and not pals. When he reads the newspapers it is to catch up on developments on the world political stage. He lives in a flat in a new block behind Langham Place, [with] a porter and a liftman at the entrance, but there was no restaurant or anything of that sort. (Hercules Poirot comes to mind, albeit of a younger, more British, more rugged turn of style.)

And of course he has a manservant: not a butler exactly, a factotum perhaps. My man, Paddock... [doesn't the name tell you everything you need to know about class?] was a fellow I had had done a good turn to out on the Selakwi… had about as much gift of the gab as a hippopotamus, and was not a great hand at valeting, but I knew I could count on his loyalty.

So here we have him, the robust young man, bored and eager for something to happen. So happen something must. Specifically a stranger accosts him upon his own doorstep, inveigles his way into the flat as a guest, tells all sorts of tales about nefarious government activity and foreign agents provocateurs and impending war if the plot should come to pass. He then has the effrontery to get himself murdered in the flat one day when Hannay is out.

As in all good tales, the last thing that our hero thinks of doing is calling the police.

Instead he sets off to determine the truth of what his guest has told him and halt the plot if at all possible.

Naturally the body is discovered and so as well has having to evade those on the tale of his new friend (foreign agents one presumes), he also has the Great British bobbies after his neck for murder.

There follows the usual man-hunt-cum-spy-chase-cum-murder-mystery-clue-solving treasure hunt familiar to all who know the films or have read any other book in the genre. Buchan is brilliant on the details of railway timetables, and tides, the clothing of road-mending ne'er-do-wells, and the sights and smells of towns and bog-soaked heather lined Scots moors.

If you can't remember the story, then the clue-trail and revelation is in that traditional line which says the reader should be able to work out the red herrings, but won't necessarily have all the information has to determine the outcome. That's fair. The hero doesn't either.

The issue of class was probably as hot a topic as war when the book was first published in 1915, and Buchan plays out the issues in ways that seem incidental, but are in truth fundamental to the plot. Disguises only work because of assumptions about class. Assumptions can cause plots to succeed or to fail. I suspect that no-one in 1915 fully understood just how big an impact upon the British class structure the Great War and its aftermath was going to have, but it's evident that the cracks were already showing for anyone who chose to look (and Buchan seems to have been looking). Certainly in the interwar years this quake in the social landscape would have been felt by everyone, and with another war looming it is no surprise that by the time Buchan died in 1940 The Thirty-Nine Steps had sold a million copies.

In the early days of publication, it would have been seen as a justification for the war then being fought. Letters from the front imply that the soldiers enjoyed it… albeit mainly because they didn't think too much about it, even if it could have told them that there were darker machinations that had gotten them into those trenches than they'd ever imagined.

Buchan is no Orwell. In some ways, he's closer to Enid Blyton: "Famous Five for Adults" wouldn't be far short of the mark. The escapades are improbable. The settings are very real, truly atmospheric. It is all quite spiffing fun! (And I actually do mean that as a compliment.) But his insight into both social and political reality mustn't be overlooked. For all the apparent superficiality, his spy stories are intelligent, informed and it's a shame that they are often now considered dated rather than the eloquent period pieces for which read classics that they really are.

At only 112 pages, it can be (indeed demands to be) read in a sitting or two… preferably on the overnight Caledonian Express would be my recommendation.

Further reading suggestion: If you enjoyed this, follow it up with Hannay’s next adventure in Greenmantle.

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