The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan.

The Thirty-Nine Steps is a novella by the Scottish author John Buchan, and was published in 1915. It's the first of the 'Richard Hannay Stories' which also include Greenmantle (1916), Mr Standfast (1919), The Three Hostages (1924), and The Island of Sheep (1936), and it's the first John Buchan I've read: fortunately I liked it!

It's very short, only a hundred pages or so, and it tells the story of Richard Hannay, a Scot in London newly returned from Rhodesia in southern Africa. Mr. Hannay is bored:
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 out in the sun. 'Richard Hannay', I kept telling myself, 'you have got into the wrong ditch, my friend, and you had better climb out.'
Bored, and somewhat cynical - a good introduction to a spy novel, and this is a good, solid story more of the tradition of Sherlock Holmes than James Bond (who I can never bring myself to like despite best efforts). It begins with the murder of Franklin P. Scudder, an American spy who knows of a plot to assassinate the Greek Prime Minister Karolides and thus wreak havoc in Europe. Already Scudder has faked his own death and now must follow a ring of German spies, 'The Black Stone', who are attempting to discover British plans for the outbreak of World War I. Shortly after revealing his mission, Scudder is found dead.

James Edwin McConnell's illustration of
The Thirty-Nine Steps.
And so Richard must flee - he resolves to complete Scudder's mission but knows he will be a suspect for the murder. He heads for Galloway (in the south east Scotland) to hide, evade the police, to decipher the Scudder's notes that will reveal the full details of Scudder's plans, and discover the significance of the 'thirty-nine steps' that will lead him to a German spy.

It is very much of its time, but all the same it's a very high paced and energetic novella, and I had a similar experience with it as that with H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds (1898) - I've no interest in reading the spy (or sci-fi) genre, or indeed adventure novels, which is partly what The Thirty-Nine Steps is, but this was a very entertaining read and I'm glad I've finally got to it. I've had this book for a long time, I bought it when I was very young and would buy any Penguin Classic, but somehow it got lost and I regretted it, but then I came across The Complete Richard Hannay Stories. I'm glad, these stories are definitely on my to-read pile now! 

Comments

  1. Have you seen the Hitchcock adaptation? From what I can recall, it doesn't resemble this story at all.

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    1. I haven't, but I just read a synopsis on Wikipedia - there are some similar elements, but it wasn't very recognisable. I think somewhere else I read something about a film made recently, and it was said it was "faithful to the plot unlike Hitchcock".

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  2. While I enjoyed this read, it wasn't one of my favourites. It reminded me of a Dashiell Hammett or a Raymond Chandler novel ....... a good read but not a true literary classic. These type of novels are good for "fluff" reads though. I was happy to be able to revisit the story through your review!

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    1. It's a fluffy classic :)

      I've not read Hammett or Chandler so can't comment further :)

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  3. This is on my classics club list! I can't wait to read it! I grew up watching the old black and white film of it.

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    1. I think, from what I've been given to understand, it's a lot different. I've not seen the film, but I'd like to see the old Hitchcock one :)

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  4. I have had this on the Kindle for forever but it never seems to make it to the top of the list - I think because I've seen the film more than once. It is such a good story though.

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    1. It is indeed. Hopefully I'll be reading the other ones in the series later this year :)

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