The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

Never having read anything by John Buchan before, the logical place to start seemed to be with his most famous novel, The Thirty-Nine Steps. I wasn’t at all sure that it would be my sort of book, which is why I’ve put off reading it for so long, but I knew there must be a reason why it is so well-loved and has been adapted for film and television so many times.

Published in 1915, The Thirty-Nine Steps is set during the May and June of the previous year, just before the outbreak of war in Europe. The novel is narrated in the first person by Richard Hannay, who has recently arrived in London having spent most of his life living in Africa. As the story begins, Hannay has been in England for three months and is feeling bored, homesick and disillusioned:

The crowd surged past me on the pavements, busy and chattering, and I envied the people for having something to do. These shop-girls and clerks and dandies and policemen had some interest in life that kept them going. I gave half-a-crown to a beggar because I saw him yawn; he was a fellow-sufferer. At Oxford Circus I looked up into the spring sky and I made a vow. I would give the Old Country another day to fit me into something; if nothing happened, I would take the next boat for the Cape.

That evening, as luck would have it, something does happen. He is approached by a stranger who introduces himself as Franklin P. Scudder, an American secret agent, and who claims to have uncovered a plot to destabilise Europe by assassinating Constantine Karolides, an important Greek politician. Scudder believes his life is in danger and asks Hannay to shelter him for the night, but when the agent is murdered inside his home, Hannay fears that the killers will come for him next. Desperate to get away, he flees to Scotland with the intention of hiding there for a while until he can think of a way to continue Scudder’s work and prevent the assassination of Karolides. It seems he is about to have all the excitement he could have wished for – and more.

All of this happens in the first two chapters. The remainder of the novel follows Hannay’s adventures while on the run, most of which involve being chased around the Scottish countryside and having encounters with various eccentric characters, who could be friends but are equally likely to be enemies. Each chapter feels almost like a separate short story, which is maybe explained by the fact that the novel was originally published as a serial in Blackwood’s Magazine so needed to be written in an easily digestible format. I found it very entertaining at first, but somewhere in the middle I thought it became a bit tedious and repetitive. There were far too many coincidences and too many last-minute escapes; fun in small doses, but a whole book like that was too much for me. It also lacks depth, both in terms of characters and plot, but if you accept it for what it is – an early example of the adventure/spy novel, it’s quite enjoyable.

I can’t say that I loved The Thirty-Nine Steps, but I would be happy to try more of John Buchan’s books. Can anyone recommend one that I might like?

22 thoughts on “The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

  1. Calmgrove says:

    His Greenmantle is usually mentioned, but I’ve not read it: like you this is the only Buchan I’ve read, and had the same reaction. Mostly my lasting impression is of the man with hooded eyes…

    • Helen says:

      Greenmantle would be the logical choice for my next Buchan novel as it’s a sequel to this one, but I think some of his other books sound more appealing to me.

      • Silvia says:

        Oh, yeah, go for what appeals to you. Greenmantle I got it for cheap, and I may not even pick that one first either, but other titles here mentioned that sound more appealing to me as well.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, it probably does. I didn’t think it worked very well in book format – it was too repetitive. I will try another one of John Buchan’s books, though.

  2. Deb W says:

    A dyed in the wool Buchan fan, having been intruduced to him at an early age, i own them all. My favourite is Blanket of the Dark, a novel about a would be king set in 15th c london. Also The Dancing Floor, set between the wars in Crete. All romances in the old fashioned meaning of the word, i think Buchan yearned for a world sadly lost. He was a true renaissance man of his times, his novels span a wide variety of genres. Try more of him, outside the Hannay novels.

    • Helen says:

      Thanks, Deb. I haven’t heard of either of those but they both sound more appealing to me than the Hannay books, particularly Blanket of the Dark.

  3. FictionFan says:

    I felt exactly the same way – all that running around became tedious after a bit. However, the Hitchcock film is great – one where the movie definitely beats the book!

  4. Nick says:

    Re: The Thirty-nine Steps. None of the films have followed the actual story in the book! The book is infinitely better than ANY of the movies. I read it every year,
    and it is always a good yarn.

    • Helen says:

      I usually find that books are better than the films based on them, but most of the people commenting here seem to prefer the film in this case. It’s good to hear a different opinion!

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