Sunday, June 12, 2011

The 39 Steps - John Buchan

Cover from the first edition.
' I let out with my left, and had the satisfaction of seeing him measure his length in the gutter. '

Richard Hannay punches out Marmaduke Jopley.

 You may or may not have heard of John Buchan's novel The 39 Steps as you are more likely to have heard of Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 film rendition of it ( which was far from faithful to the novel ). Either way the title is very distinctive, and sadly as a novel I think over shadowed by its three film adaptations. It was written in 1915 and was initially released as a serial before being published as a full length novel. It is only 149 pages long but John Buchan uses a brevity of words to write a short and engaging novel.

 The 39 Steps was written by Buchan when he was laid up ill with a duodenal ulcer. It is the first of a series involving his character Richard Hannay, an Englishman who made his fortune in Rhodesia and returned to the 'Home Country'. He is an all action hero with a stiff upper lip and an uncanny knack of getting himself out of any seemingly impossible situation. John Buchan called the Hannay series as a 'shocker', a novel involving suspense, politics, and personal drama set against a backdrop of adventure where the events are highly unlikely and the reader only just able to believe them. In other words credibility is stretched! Sounds like a modern Hollywood movie doesn't it?! But all the same fun and entertainment prevails, and that is their ultimate purpose.

 I really liked this novel even though it is very short and easily read within a matter of hours. I've always admired the skill needed to write such a novel of brevity and yet still able to add in so much. Here the action starts in London, moves to Scotland, back to London, and finishes on the south east coast. It feels like a journey even though it is quickly read. Apparently the novel was extremely popular when released especially among men in the trenches of the Great War for its element of escapism.

To my modern sensibilities there was a quaintness and charm to the novel. It is very early Twentieth Century in writing style with no swearing or bloodshed, even though there is a murder. It was so noticeable and a refreshing change from modern novels where every detail is minutely examined. Buchan does it with a minimum of words and yet still manges to perfectly capture a scene. For me ,even though this is a brief read, it is still a genuine work of literature. Because it is brief Buchan has shown extraordinary skill in writing so much with so little word use. As a novel it has dated as we aren't shocked by the 'shock' genre anymore as we see it on our big and small screens every night. But if the reader reads it as a 1915 novel they will enjoy it more and should revel in Buchan's literary skills.

 Funnily enough many of the covers of re-printed editions feature a bi-plane on the cover chasing Hannay in Scotland. In the book Hannay does get chased by a plane but he very clearly states it as a mono-plane!!! So the covers are incorrect against Buchan's text!! The scene on the above cover is one from the novel though! The thing also with the three film adaptations is that even though Hitchcock's is highly regarded the 1978 version is considered the one that follows the book more faithfully than any other. It was also adapted to a British  television series in 2008 which had a tenuous resemblance to the novel.

 A short read that is a good example of an action novel from the early Twentieth Century. Dated yes , both as a genre and language wise, but still an interesting worth while read. It is mainly regarded now as the novel that originated the innocent man on the run genre. In many respects John Buchan's hero Richard Hannay pre-dated the other quintessential English literary heroes Biggles, The Saint, James Bond, etc, by many years.


  1. Have you read Buchan's other Hannay novels? I love THE 39 STEPS, but the others are just as good or better. I'm a big Buchan fan. His other main character, Edward Leithan, is incredible as well!

  2. No unfortunately I haven't!! My library only has this title of the Hannay books I'm afarid.
    I think because Alfred Hitihcock immortalised The 39 Steps with his film adaptation the other titles have become less well known over the years.