Friday, April 12, 2013

The 39 Steps

Some readers may have noticed that I repeated a book in my 2011 and 2012 reading list: The Thirty-Nine Steps, by John Buchan. It has never been my tradition to read this book once a year (however enjoyable it may be) but it just so happened that both years I needed a book I could get through in a single day, preferably a morning.

And The Thirty-Nine Steps is the perfect short novel to spend an enjoyable morning with.

The Story
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 English-man made me sick, I couldn't get enough exercise, and the amusements of London seemed as flat as soda-water that has been standing in the Sun. 'Richard Hannay,' I kept telling myself, 'you have got into the wrong ditch, my friend, ad you had better climb out.'
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.

Luckily for England, Richard Hannay never took that boat to the Cape. Upon returning home, he finds a man in his room, Scudder, who needs a quiet place to hide away in. Apparently he's on to something big--and he needs Hannay's help. Scudder has stumbled on a plot to assassinate Constantine Karolides on June 15th, igniting war in the powder keg of Europe. But now his enemies know that he's on to them, and where he is. Thus, he arranged his room to give the impression that he had committed suicide.

Richard agrees to help by putting him up, until he returns home one evening to find Scudder pinned with a dagger to his apartment floor, and realizes everything points to him as the murderer. Taking on the double purpose of saving Scudder's mission and his own skin, he takes the little fellow's black notebook and flees to Scotland, there to avoid both the Germans and the British police until June 15th. While fleeing across the moors, he finds that Scudder's purpose is much bigger than he let on in the beginning. In his last extremity, fleeing from wrongful capture by the British police, he is rescued by the ringleader of the German spies.


The Movie

I have seen several clips of this adaptation and read the Wikipedia recap synopsis, and without ranting, will simply say that it leaves much to be desired. Richard Hannay (Rupert Penry-Jones) is coupled with a rip-roaring female intelligence agent with a photographic memory, who spoils pretty much all the shining moments he had. This isn't merely a quibble about a book-movie adaptation. Masterpiece Theatre changes the entire worldview of the characters, and the theme of the conflict from a man defending his country to a petty squabble about women being just as capable as men. Not to mention that the real Richard Hannay would never ever make his companion wear a ring on her wedding finger so he can get a room for a good night's sleep.

According to the Wikipedia article:

The adaptation received mostly negative reviews from the press, believing it did not match up to Hitchcock's 1935 film version (as predicted by Mickery). Sam Wollaston of The Guardian felt that the romance scene between Hannay and Victoria (when they stay overnight in an inn) was "one of the silliest ever" and felt that after the final scene at the loch and the concluding scene: "It's all very silly .... It doesn't have the pace, the moodiness or the wit." ....Mick Hume of The Times said "The overall effect was to turn Buchan's blood and thunder tale into a pallid politically correct Enid Blyton story" and The Independent's Robert Hanks concluded his review by saying that "By the end, my impression was that several pages of the plot must have been eaten by a dog, or a bored actor, and the director had decided, [why bother], nobody's going to keep watching this long. Which I wouldn't have if I wasn't being paid."

My Thoughts
I first heard of Hannay at the age of 13 or 14 through the Bluedorn family's recommended book list, which also introduced me to Howard Pyle's Men of Iron and Alfred Ollivant's Bob, Son of Battle. (Now that brought back memories!) What a pleasure it was to find the Richard Hannay WWI books at my local library, and then a couple of years later to discover the often-unknown fifth book and continue his adventures. After a long hiatus, I came back to The Thirty-Nine Steps in the summer of 2012,  relieved to find that his story's delightful adventure is timeless.
The Thirty-Nine Steps contains it's fair share of language, mostly mild swearing and using the name of the Lord in vain, which I white-out. Other than that, this plot is remarkably clean, without skimping on the drama and excitement. Hannay's adventure may not be a long tale, but I think many authors would count their work well-done if they could produce such a tight and engaging plot.
It's amusing that there are almost no women. Maybe one in total, and she merely gave the hero a meal on his way across the moors. Kudos! I love a book without any females in it on occasion.
Not only is the book a pleasure, but the time period is a lovely one to have a story in as well. I could count the books I've read on one hand that are set in World War One. An overlooked time period of history that holds many fascinations.
The Thirty-Nine Steps is the first of five Hannay chronicles. The other four are: Greenmantle, Mr. Standfast, The Three Hostages, and The Island of Sheep.

Buchan wrote this book to amuse himself during a period of ill-health. Actually, I should have said "Sir" John Buchan. He did stellar work for England during the war, writing propaganda, collaborating on a detailed history of the war, and working in the Intelligence Corps. Due to his practical knowledge and talented writing he has given us many stories to enjoy.

I look forward to delving into his works more deeply on the blog sometime in the future.

Lady Bibliophile


  1. Great post! It's cool you can find books set in WWI. There aren't as many in that era. ;)
    It's always nice to have a short book to take a break on! :D

  2. John Buchan, Lord Tweedsmuir, actually, not Sir John Buchan. His title of baron preceded and outranked his memberships of the knightly orders he was also appointed to. *evil grin*

    Otherwise, I would like to glowingly second this post and look forward to watching Schuyler get her teeth into future adventures of the Two Dutchmen on the Loose, the Wild Birds, and so on.

    1. Haha! You're talking to an American, Suzannah. Princess Diana and Princess Kate and Sir John Buchan. :D Ah well, maybe some day I'll be able to get the hang of Britain's most confusing aristocracy. *cheeky grin*

      Hmm, methinks I see some title recommendations there? I'm saving up for a complete Hannay collection, but I'll keep an eye out for these at our book sales.

    2. I'm sorry--those are not title recommendations--those are allusions to Greenmantle and Mr Standfast.

      YES, SCHUYLER, it's not Princess Diana, it's Princess Charles of Wales, and it's not Princess Kate, it's the Duchess of Cambridge, get it right! :P

    3. Oh, oh. I would have been looking for them, that's so funny.

      All right, I'll try! :P


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