RogerBW's Blog

The Thirty-Nine Steps, John Buchan 17 February 2017

1915 thriller; first of Buchan's books about Richard Hannay. Bored in London, Hannay invites his worried neighbour into his flat, and soon finds both the authorities and a cunning group of terrorists against him.

This is an early example of espionage fiction, but it's more in the style of the thriller; Hannay himself is primarily a man of action rather than a gatherer of information. He mostly relies on Scudder, the American he's invited in, who reels off a story about an anarchist-capitalist-Jewish [sic] plot to kick off the Great War between Russia and Germany by assassinating the Greek Premier Karolides on a visit to Britain, and a particular date when it's going to happen, and then gets conveniently murdered so that Hannay has to go on the run. But Scudder has left behind a notebook in cipher.

At least Buchan resists the temptation to have Hannay decoding a little bit at a time, just enough to give him the next clue when things flag. Instead, Hannay decides that he's obviously going to be the prime suspect for Scudder's murder, and flees for the wilds of Galloway; closer to the deadline, he thinks, he'll be able to do better at getting the ears of the men who might be able to do something about the plot, because if he presents himself to the police early, even if he is believed, Karolides will just stay at home and things will still be going horribly wrong… just a bit less so.

Not that this iteration of Buchan's Scotland is particularly wild; Hannay sleeps at pubs and farmhouses, while the newspapers circulate his description and much of the country seems to be out hunting for the Portland Place Murderer. Meanwhile the bad guys are also after him, with not only thugs on the ground but a spotter in an aeroplane who seems preternaturally able to recognise his prey. (All right, he's probably only a few hundred feet up.)

There's no real sense of progress in this greater part of the book, only a series of events; it's more of a picaresque in some ways, one man's adventures on the run in Scotland. He hurls himself off a train, but is spotted when the dog of the drunken man sharing his compartment takes against him. He stops at an inn run by a hopeful poet, and colludes with him to send his pursuers on the wrong track. He steals a car, later crashes it, and makes the acquaintance of a would-be Radical candidate. And so on. The climax sees him stumbling by coincidence (oh dear) on the house of one of the main bad guys and being locked up… but Hannay's been a mining engineer, and they didn't hide the explosives well enough.

From there the progress is more direct: that Radical knows the right man in the Foreign Office, who listens to Hannay's story. But Hannay hasn't worked everything out – well, he hasn't worked anything out himself, he's going entirely from Scudder's decoded notebook and the knowledge of what some of the bad guys look like – and the plot isn't going quite the way he's expected. With some remarkable leaps of deductive logic, Hannay works out where to catch the spies (now in possession of major military secrets), and confronts them… in a manoeuvre that seems entirely without point, since the route of escape has been comprehensively and secretly blocked. Still, it does at least allow Hannay to be non-plussed for once: having dealt happily with senior civil servants and military men, and with the lower orders, he finds himself confused by the comfortable middle classes.

It's… well, all right. The writing is solid and evocative. But Hannay is largely a cipher, with experience and skills not mentioned until they're needed and suddenly pop up, and personality largely limited to "dogged"; there are essentially no female characters; and the plot is driven more by the need for new incident than by any actual progress towards a solution to the problem, or any sense of real plausibility. On the other hand, the book is fundamental to the pulp genre (not to mention much of suspense film), coming out of the decay of the romantic era that had not quite found its way into modernism. And I'd rather read about Hannay than James Bond any day.

"You can always get a body in London if you know where to go for it." Freely available at Project Gutenberg; followed by Greenmantle.

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