The Thirty Nine Steps – John Buchan (1915)


This was a pick from the library shelves for my monthly book review column and was classified as Young Adult. However, I would argue that this rather wild adventure story would tick all the boxes for a good read for adults as well. It’s not a deadly serious novel and some of the events that happen are remarkably coinkidink, but it was still a good read that had an exciting narrative.

The Thirty Nine Steps is the first of a shortish series of espionage and cloak-and-dagger type of action from the eyes of protagonist Richard Hanney. (Hanney is like an early James Bond type hero, except less s*x and fewer gadgets.) It is a very fast read and I found it difficult to put down, so I thoroughly enjoyed it once I had stopped trying to make it believable. (Again, the adventures Harry has are ridiculous, but it’s a great read.)

“I returned from the City about three o’clock on that May afternoon pretty well disgusted with life. I had three months in the Old Country and was fed up with it.” (Chapter One.)

The narrative begins with Hanney complaining about how dull life was now that he had arrived from South Africa and was living in London. In fact, he was so bored that if nothing happened soon (no job, I see), he was going to move back to then-Rhodesia.

That evening as he was relaxing in his flat, a neighbor knocked on the door and asked for his help in stopping an anarchist plot by evil German spies to destabilize Europe and assassinate the Greek premier of the time when he visited UK. After proving that the story is real, the neighbor is found dead with a knife in his chest, and Hanney takes up the cause, going on the run as a fugitive to avoid being caught by the Germans (called Black Stone) and at first, the English law enforcement who were chasing him as a suspect in murder.

Lots of adventures on trains, in stolen cars, living as a fugitive and a life on the run, Hanney’s story is full of phrases like “Tally ho!”, things being “beastly”, “ripping good chaps”, and “being haled from the other room” to “sup on biscuits”. (The writing reminded me of Enid Blyton’s tales except with grown-ups and guns.)

It’s all a bit much if you read this with a serious mindset, but once I realized that it was a caper-type story, it was really good.

One not so good point was that it is a reflection of the times, and has quite a lot of negative stereotypes and descriptions of minority groups. It’s difficult to get past that sometimes but this stopped after the first few chapters so I kept reading. (There was a lot in the first third of the novel, but once adventures start, the story stops doing that. And, as mentioned, it was a reflection of the times which doesn’t make it right, but it is what it is.) This prejudicial writing is strange as well when you learn about Buchan’s political beliefs as he was a multicultural supporter in numerous ways.

His take on the Germans is also not positive, but if you look at that time in history when it was written, it’s more understandable. (England was in the horrors of World War I, just had the Boer Wars, and numerous other conflicts. Germany had sunk a battleship off Dorset coast killing more than 500 crew, and Zeppelins had quite bombed Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn… It was a time of destabilization which was reflected in the plot.)

Hmm. Points to ponder.

Once Hanney reaches Scotland, he is chased by aeroplanes, by cars, by opposing spies and dogs. He has to fend for himself, and it’s all pretty clichéd but the writing kept me going. Buchan had a lot of exposure to life on the Scottish moors, and this was obvious when I read his descriptions of the glens and muirs and fells etc. I just fell into the world of the highlands and it was such fun.

There was also quite a bit of dialect which was challenging in a good way. To set the stage, Hannery has come across an isolated road mender in the Highlands and is asking for a favor. This is what the roadmender replies:

“You’re the billy…It’ll be easy enearch managed. I’ve finished that bing of stanes, so you needna chap on my mair this forenoon. Just take the barry, and wheel enough metal frae yon quarry doon the road to make anither bing the morn…”

(And it wasn’t all like this – just bits and pieces. If it had been all like that, I’m not sure I could have made it to the end!)

I’m not usually a spy novel reader for the most part, but I loved this. Not only was the adventure fun, but Buchan’s writing was impressive as well and he utilized his large vocabulary. Shelved as a YA novel, I think that strong young readers could pick up the meaning of these words from context clues, but not sure that a more impatient or less confident reader would do the same. So long as that didn’t bog you down, the story itself was just plain exciting and fun. It’s also good for grown-ups too. 🙂

I’m definitely going to read more about Hanney. It’s not a deep and meaningful read, but it’s fast-paced and it’s fun.

As an aside: Buchan was nominated for Governor General of Canada in 1935 and received the title of 1st Baron Tweedsmuir (great name for a mostly Scottish guy). He was one of the first Governors to be appointed once Canada had passed the 1931’s the Statute of Westminster. (A Governor General of Canada is the federal viceregal representative of the Canadian monarch (who is Queen Elizabeth II). The commission is normally about five years or so, and it’s now traditional to switch between anglophone and francophone incumbents.) Buchan seemed to do a good job, with a heavy emphasis on literacy, multicultural causes, and other causes. Also had a pretty natty outfit (see below for details).


3 thoughts on “The Thirty Nine Steps – John Buchan (1915)

  1. Last month I saw a stage production of this, done in the style of a 1950’s radio play. It worked really well, emphasising the humour and highlighting the more ridiculous plot points. When I first read it, I took it very seriously but that quickly dissipated!

    • I took it seriously when I first started reading this, but then, once I started get snitty with the book, I realized it was just a light-hearted action drama and went with the flow a bit. Glad I’m not the only one!

  2. Pingback: Suggested Summer Reading…. (Part One) | Just One More Page…

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