The Thirty-Nine Steps
This is the most famous novel by John Buchan. Most superficial discussion
of Buchan the writer starts and stops with The Thirty-Nine Steps,
and moves swiftly on to talk about the Hitchcock film, The 39 Steps
(note the different title). However, what is often not realised is that
this short spy/detective/thriller was Buchan’s 17th published work. After
its success he became a best-selling writer of thrillers and adventures
for another twenty years, publishing 29 novels in total, as well as nine
collections of essays and short stories, and nine biographies.
Buchan began writing The Thirty-Nine Steps in August 1914 while
he (or his daughter Alice: accounts vary) was recovering from illness, and
he was unable to join the army due to his age and ill-health. The book was
published in the following September by the magazine Land and Water,
and published as a novel by Blackwoods shortly after that. It was a rocketing
success, and has never been out of print since. Three films were made of
the germ of the story (1935, 1958 and 1978: a fourth one is in preparation,
so we hear), and numerous BBC radio versions, but as far as I know no TV
series have been made of the novel. A six-part spin-off TV series called
Hannay was produced and broadcast by the British independent TV
station Thames TV in 1989, using the name and some of the background of
the main character, Richard Hannay, but in a series of adventures which
had nothing to do with the novel at all.
The Thirty-Nine Steps is commonly thought of as a Scottish book,
but the parts set in Scotland take up only three and a half chapters out
of the book’s ten. Tellingly, these include the parts that readers remember
most: the chase scenes on the hills and Hannay’s encounters in disguise.
Popular memory is muddled between the Buchan and Hitchcock versions of how
Hannay got up to Scotland, what he did there and how he got away, but the
scenes from Buchan’s original, that Hitchcock retained in his film for their
dramatic power and structural function, were irrepressibly Scottish. Here
Buchan repeated his successful paradox from his earlier novel ‘The Power-House’
(published in 1913 as a magazine story, but not published in book form until
after the success of The Thirty-Nine Steps, in 1916), where the
hero struggles to evade enemies in the peaceful surroundings of an unsuspecting
London. In south-west Scotland Hannay is a stranger in a strange land being
hunted by an unseen enemy, but in country very familiar to many of his readers.
The Thirty-Nine Steps shares much of the heroes’ characterisation
with ‘The Power-House’. Hannay and Leithen both spend frustrating amounts
of time waiting for something to happen. Both end up in a running race through
London’s West End to get to sanctuary. They both share a dislike of working
with the police unless absolutely necessary. (These amateur detectives can
handle the unmasking of international secret societies all by themselves.)
Leithen showed the upper-class distaste of publicity which Hannay would
later display in The Three Hostages. But although The Thirty-Nine
Steps does have some of the established elements of a detective story
(a dead body, and clues to be interpreted and connected), this tale is not
detective fiction: it is Buchan’s first pure thriller.
Perhaps, although the form is misleading, the core elements may still add
up to detection. Can Hannay be regarded as a detective? The story may originally
have been in Buchan’s mind as a mystery of a body and a moorland chase,
but he wrapped it up in an eve-of-war plot to sell the book in wartime conditions.
The start of the novel seems conventional now: in 1915 it would have been
breathtakingly swift, presenting the reader very early on with a body and
a clue hidden in the tobacco jar. When the enemy closes in, and Hannay realises
the threat of the police, the imperative to get away quickly, for self-preservation
as well as to solve the mystery, makes the methodical and painstaking approach
of a detective redundant. There is no time for searching the apartment for
clues to who killed Scudder. Hannay’s priority is searching for the missing
notebook, in which he suspects the clues to the greater, political, international,
mystery are held. International politics take precedence over the domestically
dead body in a living room, because the dead body is a spy.
The Literary Innkeeper, when told an embroidered version of Hannay’s story,
exclaims ‘My God! It is all pure Rider Haggard and Conan Doyle’. Hannay
has spun a yarn straight out of Haggard about a chase across Africa to make
the truth more believable to his credulous listener. The Conan Doyle part
was the truth. This may be helpful in indicating how Buchan regarded detective
fiction, that it was inherently more believable, and more likely, than exotic
adventure. (Hitchcock inverted this idea in his film, when Hannay tries
to persuade the milkman with the truth, but is only believed when he spins
a tale.) The Literary Innkeeper longs for adventure and romance, but he
only gets detection.
Hannay claims in The Thirty-Nine Steps that he is no Sherlock
Holmes, but he makes deductions from clues given by Scudder. He is not cerebral
like E C Bentley’s Philip Trent, nor is he an assassin like one of Edgar
Wallace’s Four Just Men. He is a new thing, a physically active thriller
hero facing the challenge of intellectual exertion because he has been thrown
into the role of a detective. Hannay makes time and space for a detective’s
reflection by getting onto a train and sleeping in the heather, but he is
continually shunted out of these reflective spaces by the imperative of
pursuit. Buchan’s genius lay in combining the two.
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