Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan


In 1914, John Buchan came down with the stomach ulcer that was to plague him for the rest of his busy life and was forced to spend weeks in bed. During this time he briskly read through a collection of what he called “shilling shockers” and was inspired to try his own, as shocking and shilling-worthy as the rest: a romance “where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible.” No doubt he would have been considerably surprised (and perhaps disappointed) to learn that this would become the most famous and widely-read of his works, and the first great work of a whole new genre.

For The Thirty-Nine Steps is often quoted as the first work of modern spy fiction, though it had fore-runners in Erskine Childers's The Riddle of the Sands and Buchan's own more philosophical The Power-House. Although Steps, as much as it impacted his successors (such as Fleming, Maclean, and Hitchcock) has less to do with spies than it has to do with suspense, it contains most of the tropes of the genre: an ordinary man of great abilities, hunted by police and foreign spies through picturesque locations, must evade capture long enough to get news to the right people.


Buchan is at his most effortlessly creative in this book. Setting aside all thought of higher things, he throws himself into the task of off-the-cuff improvisation—inventing plot-appropriate explosives, 'old Mashona tricks', and an unfortunate Greek Premier to stand in for the ill-fated Franz Ferdinand with a joyful energy rarely found in literature.

Our narrator, Richard Hannay, has made a small fortune in Rhodesia as a mining-engineer and recently retired to England. Bored, friendless, and desperate for meaningful employment, Hannay is on the verge of returning to Africa when a nervous man turns up on his doorstep looking for help. Scudder seems like a harmless enough paranoiac who believes the Jews are going to destroy the world, but then he turns up knifed on Hannay's hearth-rug. Realising that strange doings are afoot, Hannay takes Scudder's little black notebook and flees to Scotland, wanted by the police for murder and German spies for the notebook.

The Thirty-Nine Steps is very short, with no dull moments whatsoever, plenty of plot twists, and suspense that never lets up till the last page. Hannay spends most of the story on the run in the Scottish Border country, which Buchan knew and loved well. One of JB's great talents was that of being able to conjure up a countryside or a personality in a few words, and the scenery in Steps is vivid. The palpable sense of place and time helps anchor the inconsequential narrative, so that the landscape becomes the most important thing in the book. Not that Hannay has much time to appreciate it: like all his fictional successors, he has his hands full trying to keep half a step ahead of both police and enemies. The book works precisely because it is a combination of the solidly real and the wildly implausible—and Buchan never gives up trying to convince us that the events really are “marching within the border of the possible”:
But suddenly I remembered a thing I once heard in Rhodesia from old Peter Pienaar. I have quoted Peter already in this narrative. He was the best scout I ever knew, and before he had turned respectable he had been pretty often on the windy side of the law, when he had been wanted badly by the authorities. Peter once discussed with me the question of disguises, and he had a theory which struck me at the time. He said, barring absolute certainties like fingerprints, mere physical traits were very little use for identification if the fugitive really knew his business. He laughed at things like dyed hair and false beards and such childish follies. The only thing that mattered was what Peter called 'atmosphere'.

If a man could get into perfectly different surroundings from those in which he had been first observed, and--this is the important part--really play up to these surroundings and behave as if he had never been out of them, he would puzzle the cleverest detectives on earth. And he used to tell a story of how he once borrowed a black coat and went to church and shared the same hymn-book with the man that was looking for him. If that man had seen him in decent company before he would have recognized him; but he had only seen him snuffing the lights in a public-house with a revolver.
This actually illustrates yet another of the things I love about Buchan. His characters may rarely mention it and they certainly never preach, but they, like their creator move within the paradigm of the Bible, the Pilgrim's Progress, and the kirk (Scots for 'church'): it is a part of their lives in an unobtrusive, all-encompassing way: if it isn't an off-hand quotation of Scripture, it's a reference to the hero being an elder of the Free Kirk (like Dickson McCunn). Look back at this quotation and please, take a moment to fully appreciate that Mr Pienaar is the kind of man who will shoot out the lights in a pub one day and then go to church the next. As someone who attends a small rural Presbyterian church I find this realistic view of church-goers extremely refreshing. How many fictional church-going people do you know that are as interesting as the real kind? Either they're too heavenly-minded to be any earthly use, or they are slimy evil hypocrites (depending on whether the author is religious or not). I have already mentioned that Buchan made virtue deeply beautiful to me; and he did so in large part by depicting an active, masculine, un-pietistic Christianity that lives rather than preaches what it believes.

But I digress.

I often tell people that The Thirty-Nine Steps is a great place to start reading Buchan—but a terrible place to stop. Although keenly enjoyable, it is the least profound, the most conventional of his wildly unconventional works. Read it—then move on to the sequels!

Film versions—As everyone knows, this book has been filmed various times. I shall only deal with the Hitchcock version here as it is the only one I have seen. It's a good movie, but even Hitchcock can only dilute the powerful Buchan suspense; and the love interest just slows things down. Also Robert Donat is far too fluffy to be convincing as Richard Hannay. The good news is that a faithful adaptation has never been made, so we can keep hoping!

Arthur's Classic Novels etext
Librivox recording

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