#1915Book: John Buchan’s THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS

TheThirtyNineStepsAudioMy contribution to the Past Offences monthly classic challenge. The publications of one hundred years ago offered slim pickings for my sensibilities and from those I opted for the book which arguably introduced the world to the innocent-man-in-peril thriller.

I’ve twice now made the same error when selecting a book for this challenge: choosing what to read based on my knowledge of an adaptation. I never got around to writing about my #1952Book – David Dodge’s TO CATCH A THIEF – but if I had done I suspect I could have copied large swathes of my critique for this post. In both instances the film adaptations which came afterwards are much better stories and in both cases I’d wager the source material would long ago have faded into obscurity if not for the superiority of Alfred Hitchcok’s narrative skills.

If you have seen either of the early film adaptations but never read the book there’s a lot you wouldn’t recognise (the 1978 adaptation is reportedly more faithful than those from 1935, 1959 or 2008 though I can’t remember it well enough to make the claim on my own) so let me help you out. It is 1914. Pre-war. Richard Hannay is in England after years of life as a mining engineer in Rhodesia. He’s bored (because he doesn’t have a chap to run about with). He returns home one night to find an American on his doorstep. The man, Scudder, has faked his own death and claims to know of a plot to assassinate the Greek Premier during his imminent visit to London (heaven knows why he selected Hannay – a total stranger – alone in all the world to share this apparently vital piece of information with). The aforementioned Scudder is murdered a few days later. Rather than contacting any kind of authority Hannay disguises himself as a milkman to escape the prying eyes of whoever murdered Scudder and the police and catches a train to Scotland where he proposes to hide out until nearer the due date of the assassination and then warn ‘one of the government people’ of the threat to the Greek politician. This is as believable as the plot gets. Ridiculousness piles upon absurd coincidence for the remainder of this brief tale (it clocks in at under 4 hours in the audio version I listened to or under 100 pages in the Project Gutenberg download I skimmed).

I suppose I’m being a little harsh in that the preposterous story might not have seemed quite so outlandish a hundred years ago but when a book has nothing else – no character development, no thought-provoking exploration of themes – then the quality (or lack thereof) of the plot will get all the attention. Though perhaps I’ll allow a digression to mention the quite confronting casual bigotry on display. I know we have to make allowances for the writing being of its time. But still: ugh.

Getting back to the story. I now know that it was originally published as a series of instalments in a magazine which makes a lot of sense as every chapter finishes with an absurd cliffhanger. I suppose that kept people returning to buy the next issue but it makes for a somewhat alarmingly paced tale when all strung together. There are repeated sequences of Hannay meeting the right person to help him escape his current predicament (however unlikely their appearance at that moment might be), the donning of a disguise, some running and hiding (usually in fields) and an in-the-nick-of-time escape. In between, our hero proves most worthy of the sobriquet for there is little he cannot turn his hand to (code-breaking, public speaking, setting explosives and generally outwitting all manner of gents) (and unlike all the films the novel is populated almost entirely by gents though I do recall a woman offering shelter and cheese at one point). I know it is meant to be suspenseful but there is never a single moment’s doubt that Hannay will succeed and all without incurring any kind of permanent injury (though how he managed to pick up a very convenient case of Malaria in the middle of Scotland is, I suppose, something of a mystery).

The book is a forgettable romp. Its language and attitude are dated and its substance is…well…almost non existent. And after so much adventure the ending is a whimper rather than a bang which is something of a disappointment. But it’s enjoyable enough as an example of the British “Tally Ho Chaps” sensibility in action (and in the early days of the war I’m sure this would have been appreciated) and perhaps worth the short time reading it occupies to understand the origins of the now well-worn trope of an innocent man on the run.

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19 Responses to #1915Book: John Buchan’s THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS

  1. Couldn’t agree more, Bernadette. In this case, the Hitchcock adaptation is so much better than the original story. It was an innovation for its time, and I suppose worth it for that. Otherwise…the film every time.

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  2. Felicity says:

    I was forced to read this at school and it bored me to tears … kudos to you, Bernadette, for being able to get through it!

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  3. Col says:

    I had some of the same misgiving as you, but still managed to enjoy it overall. Not that I’ve rushed back to anything else by him.

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  4. Let me declare an interest up front: The 39 Steps is one of my all time favourite books – so I feel slightly as though someone has called my baby ugly! I feel it’s worth seeing the book in its context. It was the first modern thriller of its genre and was the prototype for James Bond (I believe Flemyng acknowledged his debt). More importantly, this book was written in direct response to an appeal from British intelligence to the greatest living writers to enlist their pens in the service of their country. Conan Doyle brought Holmes out of retirement; Welles wrote Mr Britling sees it through and Buchan wrote this book, all as morale boosters. Buchan later became head of war propaganda. It’s true that Hitchcock’s story is superior, but then almost all screen versions of thrillers have that distinction – because they are building on and developing the original story. Please don’t be put off by The 39 Steps being a vintage story – see it in its historical context as you might The Woman in White or The Moonstone.

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    • Hi Richard. I’m sorry I’ve had a go at one of your favourites…I know how hurtful that can be. But I don’t think I’m really up for a re-evaluation of the novel (and making the link to Ian Fleming’s work isn’t really the way to my reader’s heart either I’m afraid but that’s probably the subject of a different blog post). I do appreciate that the book was written for a certain market at the outset of a war but that doesn’t really make up for the fact that it’s a rotten story with no character development. Even in 1915 you couldn’t possibly have enjoyed the novel if you happened to be Jewish. And even then women knew they did actually exist so to read a novel in which they don’t would be a struggle. I’m never going to warm to a novel with those kinds of overtones.

      It’s funny you should mention The Woman in White because I did think of that in comparison – it was originally a serial too after all – but to my mind it had some substance to it apart from the introduction of the detecting arts (similar to the way that Buchan introduces his trope) and the characters are better developed and the range of them is slightly more diverse than “white, Protestant men of means”.

      Perhaps we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one 🙂

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  5. tracybham says:

    I haven’t read all of this because I am reading it for the 1915 challenge also. I think my reaction is similar… but I have not seen the movie in a long while. Will be watching it again soon.

    I have heard that the 2nd book, Greenmantle, is better, and I shall be trying it sometime.

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    • I’ll be curious to see what you make of it Tracy

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    • I should have added to my original post that Greenmantle is a far better story and it was reading Greenmantle at school that got me reading Buchan.

      On the subject of historic racism, I’m not sure that the best response is to ignore the work entirely (a bit like refusing to listen to Wagner, surely?) I had lunch with my book editor about 10 years ago and she told me the publisher was going to re-publish best-sellers from the last century by writers like Buchan, Edgar Wallace and Neville Shute. She had been asked by the publisher to re-edit the texts to remove offensive racist words and was uneasy about it. I felt equally uneasy myself – a bit like Winston Smth re-writing history in the Ministry of Truth.

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      • Oh I don’t think such books should be re-edited to allow them to fit in with our modern sensibilities. In fact when I worked as archivist for a state government entity I fought (and won) the battle to ensure the guides to our historical records that we published did not whitewash the language which had been used in official documents (lots of very unpleasant references to Aboriginal people, women and …well…just about everyone). I think it’s important that we acknowledge our collective past. However, I can still be made uncomfortable by the use of such language and the attitudes it represents.

        Edited to add…I also think it’s quite important to point out such language/attitudes to potential readers. Some people won’t want to read such language and that’s OK by me – I’m not setting out to make anyone feel uncomfortable here.

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        • Agreed! Placing an alert for modern readers is the way to deal with historic racism – otherwise we’ll be reading Joseph Conrad’s noted novel “The member of an ethnic minority of the Narcissus.”

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  6. Belle Wong says:

    I had to read The Thirty-Nine Steps for a university course, but don’t remember anything about it – not even how I felt about reading it. I have a terrible “book memory”, but I normally do remember how I felt while reading a book. Not this one, though. I do know that I’ve not had any urge to give it a reread.

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  7. Kathy D. says:

    Oy, vey, there is anti-Semitism in this book? Definitely, not for me nor the invisibility of women.
    However, I have enjoyed the movie versions, old and new.

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  8. Rebecca says:

    These yearly book challenges are difficult sometimes. I’m just skimming the post and comments to see if I want to read it as well, but I’m thinking I’ll go with one of the other possibilities. I won’t name them because I’ve learned that the Goodreads lists I use for inspiration may be off by a year 🙂

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  9. Bradstreet says:

    Just a word about Buchan’s anti-semitism. He worked inside and outside Parliament to further the Zionist cause and his name is inscribed in Israel’s ‘Golden Book’ for his work for the Jewish National Fund, which is hard to square with the idea that he was anti-Jewish. Some of the characters in his books are certainly anti-semitic: Scudder, who first involves Hannay in the story, is wildly so. However, at the end of the book Scudder’s boss, Sir Walter Bullivant, tells Hannay that Scudder was something of a crank, with lots of silly ideas such as his belief in ‘The Jewish Conspiracy’. It is ridiculed even within the story. Having racist characters is not the same as being racist oneself. I know that racism is ‘ugh’, but if you are going to read books written before WWII then you are going to find stuff like this which feels uncomfortable. I expect that in a century a lot of opinions that seems enlightened now are going to look fairly suspect.

    I do think that Hitchcock’s version has not done Buchan’s reputation any favours, but that is because it encourages the casual reader to read a book that is not only not one of Buchan’s best, but isn’t even the best Hannay story. GREENMANTLE has more interesting ideas, and MR STANDFAST and THE THREE HOSTAGES have stronger female characters (it is Hannay’s wife who is responsible for defeating the villain’s plans in the latter story). THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS was written very quickly whilst Buchan was in hospital, and isn’t really typical of his work at all. Two of my favourites are THE FREE FISHERS (an historical thriller) and JOHN MCNAB ( humorous adventure story), but the modern reader is unlikely to read them because they’ve only heard of THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS.

    By the way, Hannay wouldn’t have picked up Malaria in Scotland. He would have picked it up in Africa. However, one of the things about the disease is that it can recur after a long period without any symptoms. Malaria parasites can lie dormant for months or even years.

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    • Good point about the Malaria, thanks.

      And it’s good to know there are better books by the author. I’ll keep him on the radar. Perhaps I can find one of these to coincide with a future monthly reading challenge.

      Perhaps I ought not to have read this book at all as spy stories aren’t really my favourite sub genre but I had a particular reason (needing something read in 1915 and not having a lot of other options easily available – my own collection and my local library offered no alternatives) and it is always interesting to me to read books which are the source material for much more well known film adaptations.

      But I don’t pretend to be an expert on the classics (one of the reasons I try to participate in the monthly challenge to read a book set in the nominated year is to force me to read more classics) and can only react as I find them. Alas I did not find this one had much to offer. The issue of contemporary language and sensibilities is complicated I think because while I do acknowledge that times were different I still find certain attitudes and behaviours confronting though it can be good to be reminded how far we have come. But I at least like to warn potential readers of such sensibilites then they can make up their own minds whether they want to read it or not.

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  10. Bradstreet says:

    You make some good points, too. I tend to get a bit protective about Buchan. I’ve read a fair bit of older thriller novels, and I know that some of the attitudes expressed can raise hackles. I try to keep the ‘different times, different attitudes’ idea in mind when I’m reading, but even I have my limits. There was one thriler author called Sidney Horler who regularly expressed hatred for Jews, Americans, Italians, French, Homosexuals, independant women, and pretty much anyone who wasn’t Sidney Horler. I read one of his books and gave up halfway. Some writers deserve to slide into obscurity, and Horler was one of those. Buchan was a much better writer and a much better person, so I always tend to try and boost him a bit whenever I can.

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