Never, ever take me to see a spy movie.
Most people can keep track of the constant twists and turns; the double-crosses and the triple-crosses that make up the plots of most spy movies. But not me. I just can’t do it.
After I lean over, elbow you in the ribs, and ask “Err, which side was that dude on again?” for the seventeenth time, chances are, you’ll grab your popcorn and stomp out of the cinema in pure disgust.
Frankly, I wouldn’t blame you.
I have no idea what happened in any of the Bourne films. Not a clue. They fished him out of the ocean, pulled some stuff out of his skin…and that’s all I can remember. I lost track after that. It’s all a big, confused blur.
I’m not a fan of complicated spy movies…and I’ve never read a spy novel.
Until this week, anyway…
The Thirty-Nine Steps
by John Buchan
Published in 1915
Before 007, before shaken-not-stirred martinis, before girls with ridiculously suggestive names, there was Richard Hannay, the hero of John Buchan’s 1915 “shocker” novel, The Thirty-Nine Steps.
Richard Hannay is bored. He’s a Scotsman by birth, in London for the first time after spending most of his life in Africa. But London holds very little excitement for Hannay – that is, until a dead man knocks on his door.
Okay, not literally. Let me explain…
Franklin P. Scudder is a man who knows too much. After uncovering a plot to murder a prominent Greek politician that would plunge most of Europe into war (errr, sound familiar?), Scudder has faked his own death, and chosen Richard Hannay as his only confidant.
But a few days later, Hannay arrives home to find Scudder dead and his apartment trashed. He knows he can’t go to the police – chances are, his story of international espionage wouldn’t go down too well at the local police station. And whoever killed Scudder is probably waiting to kill him, too. Hannay goes on the run, heading to the highlands of Scotland, where his very survival depends on his determination and wits alone.
Written in 1915, just after the beginning of the First World War, The Thirty-Nine Steps is probably one of the world’s very first spy novels. There’s a reason why I called The Thirty-Nine Steps a “shocker” in my opening paragraph – and that’s because it is.
On the dedication page of The Thirty-Nine Steps, Buchan writes:
My dear Tommy,
You and I have long cherished an affection for that elementary type of tale which Americans call the “dime novel” and which we know as the “shocker” – the romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible. During an illness last winter, I exhausted my store of these aids to cheerfulness, and was driven to write one for myself…
The Thirty-Nine Steps was written as an homage to the dime novel…but whereas most genuine dime novels have been out of print for decades, there’s something about The Thirty-Nine Steps that’s kept it in print all of these years. Despite the fact that Buchan was an accomplished poet and politician, it’s this novel that he’s most remembered for. Strangely enough, The Thirty-Nine Steps has outlasted the genre it was intended to tribute.
I do admire this little note of the author’s. It lets us know not to take the events we’re about to read too seriously, allowing us to let our literary hair down and enjoy the book that follows for what it really is – a bit of fun.
The Thirty-Nine Steps exhibits many of the familiar touchstones of the kind of detective/spy/adventure novel we’ve come to expect. There’s the middle class, dapper male protagonist, a series of daring escapes from dire situations, a creepy, hawk-like villain, and so on. But in The Thirty-Nine Steps, it’s what’s in between all the clichés that makes this novel memorable. Hannay’s desperate escape from the law and his enemies takes him to the Scottish highlands, where Buchan’s lovely descriptions of the countryside and the Scottish people sit comfortable in between Hannay’s adventures.
The other thing that dragged me into this novel is John Buchan’s authorial voice. The Thirty-Nine Steps is narrated in a friendly first-person, past tense tone that’s clear and compelling – especially in the action scenes:
“I ensconced myself just below the sill of the window, and lit the fuse. Then I waited for a moment or two. There was dead silence – only a shuffle of heavy boots in the passage, and the peaceful cluck of hens from the warm out-of-doors. I commended my soul to the maker, and wondered where I would be in five seconds…”
– John Buchan, The Thirty-Nine Steps, page 86
I know I said at the start that I’m not really a fan of the whole action/spy genre, but I really enjoyed The Thirty-Nine Steps. It’s a bit of a welcome departure from some of the more serious literature I’ve been tackling for Book to the Future so far.
Yes, the plot relies on unlikely coincidences and dumb luck from time to time – but I don’t mind that, because Buchan told us from the first page that this was going to be the case. And it’s not to the same mind-boggling extent as exhibited by some other authors I’ve read recently (yes, I’m looking at you, Edgar Rice Burroughs).
Another criticism? The characters are all a little shallow. We’re told of Hannay’s life in Africa, he recounts at various stages, stories that he’s heard over the years…but we never really get to know him as a person. Yes, even though we’re told his story from the first-person perspective. A prototype for future action heroes, it doesn’t matter what happens to him – Richard Hannay always keeps that typically English composure and rarely shows even the slightest hint of emotion.
(Oh, apart from in the book’s closing scene. Of all Richard Hannay’s clever disguises and daring plans, John Buchan saves the best of them all for last. It’s a scene so intense, you’ll be squirming in your seat…)
Whereas James Bond relied on his knob gun to get him out of tricky situations, time and time again, Richard Hannay is armed only with his considerable wit. Oh, and a little bit of good luck every so often…
If you’re after a little light-hearted escapism, you’ll definitely find it in these pages. The Thirty-Nine Steps is an entertaining tale, told well.
Turn off your brain, and just enjoy.
Official Book to the Future Reading:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
Should I read it?
Sure – why not? It’s perfect for a holiday. It’s short, and if you pick up the Popular Penguins edition, like I did, it’s seriously cheap. How can you really resist?
In a word: