The 39 Steps by John Buchan (1915)
Richard Hannay is newly returned from living in South Africa, and he’s already bored with London. Everything seems to be happening elsewhere, especially in the Near East, and the Greek Premier, Karolides, seems to feature. ”It struck me that Albania was the sort of place that might keep a man from yawning.” Dinner, then the music-hall and strolling home, Hannay is still bored. “I gave half-a-crown to a beggar because I saw him yawn; he was a fellow-sufferer.”
He needs adventure, and is soon to get it when a neighbour, Scudder, ends up with a knife between his shoulder-blades after confiding in Hannay, who soon realises that a) he’ll be framed for Scudder’s murder and, b) the people who did for Scudder will be after him too. He borrows the milkman’s cap and coat and flees north to Scotland.
Thus begins a series of adventures for Hannay as he tries to evade the baddies, clear his name, and once he uncovers more of the dastardly plot, to bring to the attention of the right people in the Government.
It’s real boys-own stuff involving murder, chases by train, car and on foot, disguises, text-book villains, and also some kind people who help him – believing him to be an okay chap. However, it’s a small world, and the baddies are everywhere…
Many of the chapters are named ‘The adventure of …’ after the main characters he encounters: ‘the literary innkeeper’ in the Scottish wilds, who is only too happy to help, saying “It is all pure Rider Haggard and Conan Doyle.” , and ‘the radical candidate’ – a local toff campaigning to be elected, who just happened to have been at college with Hannay.
At just 113 pages in my edition, the adventure sped by with no time to rest. It was great fun, and Hannay is a real hero. At 37, he’s a man who’s seen and done many things. He’s rugged, resourceful and totally at ease with himself. You sense that he knows how to handle a gun but he’s also clever enough to decipher codes and talk at the highest level. What a guy!
Those familiar with Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film, starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carrol, upon reading this book, may well say ‘Cherchez la femme’, for there are no significant female characters in the book at all, and there are many other plot changes. (The current West End stage version is based on Hitchcock’s film). The 1978 film version starring Robert Powell was closer to Buchan’s original, but still adds a strong woman character, and goes for a different climax in the ending involving Big Ben, which I remember as being rather fab!
The plot of Buchan’s novel may have a few large holes in – Why Scotland? Why the coincidences of meeting friends out in the wilds, and stumbling upon the chief baddie’s lair? I’ll forgive him though, as I liked Hannay too much to wonder much about these holes. Buchan went on to write four more Hannay adventures, none of which I’ve read, but wager will be as much fun as the first. (7.5/10)
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To explore further on Amazon, click below:
The 39 Steps by John Buchan, paperback.
The Complete Richard Hannay: “The Thirty-Nine Steps”,”Greenmantle”,”Mr Standfast”,”The Three Hostages”,”The Island of Sheep” by John Buchan, paperback omnibus.
The 39 Steps [DVD] dir Alfred Hitchcock, starring Robert Donat.
The 39 Steps  [DVD] (1978), starring Robert Powell.
I bought my copy.