The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

153492I have read relatively few books this year. Eleven, maybe twelve. It seems paltry compared to some blogger’s goals of fifty-two or ninety-nine, but I would rather read a few good books than a whole lot of so-so ones. This series was a big part of that number so far; at least a third, and John Buchan has made the top three list of authors for me. This was my first thriller, and fittingly, it is considered one of the first written. At least, it was the first to use the man-on-the-run structure. For some that may already be old, but I enjoyed the action, which goes something like this.

The Book

‘When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.’ That is exactly what thirty-something mining engineer Richard Hannay is. Thoroughly weary of London, he is planning his return to his home in Rhodesia when a nervous little American named Franklin P. Scudder appears at his front door and asks to stay a while. Hannay accepts, and Scudder, freelance spy, tells his host a little about his mission in exchange. The Germans, he says, are seeking to upset the delicate balance of power in Europe by assassinating the Greek premier, Karolides, and while Scudder is drawing the net about the dignitary’s enemies, they have also honed in on him, and he is being watched. Hannay kindly offers to keep him, but mostly disregards his story, thinking that the man is unhinged. Until he returns one evening to find his flat ransacked and his guest dead.

Hannay realizes that he will appear guilty for Scudder’s death, and when he comes across his hidden black book of secrets, knows that Scudder’s enemies will be on the lookout for him. He resolves to carry on the dead man’s quest in his place, poses as the milkman, catches a train bound for the Highlands, and starts on a his exploits. They involve stolen cars, disguises, secret codes, enemy agents of the Black Stone, scary spy airplanes, and chases in the heather which send him running straight into the headquarters of the enemy.

My Thoughts

This is a fast paced, short read, just over a hundred pages. I have seen reviews all over the board. Some readers love it, others are very critical of the pacing and plotting and character development. This is the least of Richard Hannay’s adventures. The author himself, an acclaimed novelist, confesses it as his attempt at a dime-novel, the lowest form of fiction. The character of Richard Hannay was a prime result, and his goes on to narrate four other books about his adventures as an MI5 agent during and after WWI. This is just the tip of the iceberg, yet an excellent introduction.

But it is oh, so fun, studded with little gems of British humor. Richard Hannay gives the story a distinct flavor, lending the illusive thing so prized we writers know as ‘voice’. It restored my faith in first-person narrative. (No thanks to Mark Twain *clears throat*) Inevitably, the reader will encounter occasional language as well, and the ending puzzled me so much I had to read it several times over. That, however, may be a mark of genius.

‘My plan had been to get out at some station down the line, but the train suddenly gave me a better chance, for it came to a standstill at the end of a culvert which spanned a brawling river. I looked out and saw that every carriage window was closed and no human figure appeared in the landscape. So I closed the door, and dropped quickly into the tangle of hazels which edged the line.

It would have been alright but for the dog. Under the impression that I was decamping with its master’s belongings, it started to bark, and all but caught me by the trousers. This woke up the herd, who started bawling at the carriage door in belief that I had committed suicide. I crawled through that thicket, reached the edge of the stream, and in cover of the bushes put a hundred yards or so behind me. Then from my shelter I peered back, and saw the guard and several passengers gathered round the open carriage door and staring in my direction. I could not have made a more public departure than I had left with a bugler and a brass band.’ 

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