The 39 Steps by John Buchan
First Published in: 1915
Reviewed by: Jen and Book Worm
Find it/buy it here (free on kindle): The Thirty-Nine Steps
Synopsis (from Goodreads): Richard Hannay’s boredom with London society is soon relieved when the resourceful engineer from South Africa is caught up in a web of secret codes, spies, and murder on the eve of WWI. When a neighbor is killed in his flat, Richard, suspected, decodes the journal, runs to the wilds of his native Scotland in disguises and local dialects, evades Germans and officials.
Book Worm’s Review
Credited as one of the earliest spy novels and set in 1914 before the outbreak of WWI this is the story of Robert Hannay. Hannay, who recently moved to London from Rhodesia is finding life rather dull until the mysterious Scudder turns up on his doorstep and tells him about a German conspiracy to assassinate a key public figure.
When Hannay comes home to find Scudder murdered in his flat, he realizes he is being set up for murder. Instead of trying to explain things to the police and clear his name, he decides to continue Scudder’s work and escapes London for the wilds of Scotland.
Told entirely in the first person, this is a fast-moving adventure story. The only problem is that Hannay is unbelievable as a character. He is too skilled at everything. Nothing fazes him and he is a one man spy network. While this makes for an exciting read, you do need to suspend your disbelief and just go along for the ride.
The 39 Steps is a fast-paced and entertaining, but completely unbelievable man-on-the-run, spy novel. Richard Hannay is bored with society life and is saved from his boredom just in the nick of time by a stranger who turns up in his apartment only to trigger a series of increasingly unbelievable events.
In many ways, Hannay is the like the movie version of James Bond (the book version of Bond being much more believable), but without all the spy training — he just happens to be naturally brilliant at handling explosives, disguising himself, decoding military secrets. Mix in a little Sherlock Holmes and you have Richard Hannay. Reading this book, you can’t help but see how it would translate into a great movie. In fact, several film translations exist, including a 1935 Hitchcock version.
The writing style is rather sparse and typical of the dime novel genre. Buchan worked for the British War Propaganda Bureau and this book, originally published as a magazine serial, was highly popular among men in the trenches during WWI. The Guardian listed 39-Steps as one of the 100 Best novels and Boxall considers it to be one of the 1001 books to read before you die. It’s a relatively short and entertaining read — if you don’t require realistic scenarios in your novels. It’s worth reading simply because of its contribution to the genre.
Want to try it for yourself? Find it (for free on Amazon) here: The Thirty-Nine Steps
Have you read this book? If so, what did you think?