The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

The Thirty-Nine Steps is a thriller set just before the start of the First World War. Written by the Scottish author John Buchan, it first appeared as a serial in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1915. It was published in book form the same year by William Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh.

The Thirty-Nine Steps chronicles the adventures of Richard Hannay, an expatriate British man, who finds himself embroiled in an international conspiracy after his friend and neighbour Franklin Scudder is found murdered in his apartment. This book is possibly one of the first examples of the innocent man on the run thrillers.

I find The Thirty-Nine Steps highly entertaining. It is one of those books that do not require a lot of thought but is not entirely a frivolous piece of fluff either.

The narrative moves at such a furious pace that there is hardly any time to breath. It is action packed with a great many things happening one after another. This is especially true when Hannay is on the run from both the police and a band of ruthless criminals and is trying to hide in rural Scotland.

The narrative does require a certain amount of suspension of disbelief. But Buchan manages to successfully keep the narrative ‘just’ within the bounds of reality.

Parts of the narrative appear a bit dated.

I enjoy John Buchan’s writing. It’s crisp and tautly paced.

This is a very, very short book. My Wordsworth Classics edition of the book is just 115 pages long. There is not really a lot of time for character development. Richard Hannay as the protagonist and the narrator remains the focus most of the time. So, it is mainly his character that we get to know fully. But even in this short space Buchan manages to portray the villains quite successfully. They are pretty sinister, as they are meant to be.

This book has been adapted for the screen a number of times, most notably in 1935 by Alfred Hitchcock. But most of these big screen adaptations have not remained faithful to the original work. For example, the phrase The Thirty-Nine Steps differs in its meaning in almost each of the film versions. Also, most of the movies introduce a love angle that is not a part of the original story.

The final few pages of the book are quite strange. Not really what is generally expected from a book of this genre. The atmosphere alone makes the climax very intense.

The Thirty-Nine Steps is one of my bona fide comfort reads. It manages to entertain me and at the same time dose not feel like a guilty pleasure. Overall, very enjoyable.

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4 comments

  1. Have you read any of his other books… this one is part of a series is it not featuring the same guy.

    I enjoyed it, I’d like to read the others but I can’t say I was that enthralled. Perhaps because I only found out about it watching the more modern BBC adaptation of it that featured Rupert Penry-Jones (yummy) which was quite a lot different to the book. It is amazing when you look back on when it was written though – it is quite exciting for the day. James Bond eat your heart out!

    1. Yes, The Thirty-Nine Steps is part of a series of five books. I haven’t read any of the others yet. Maybe someday I will.

      You’re right. The Thirty-Nine Steps is very exciting, especially for its time. It hardly gives one time to breath!

      As for adaptations, I don’t watch them. Most of the time they are very different from the books and I prefer reading a book to watching it.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful and insightful review. I found you through the Small Blogs Big Giveaway blog hop and am now a new email subscriber.
    Laurie

    1. Thanks! I’ve grown to love The Thirty-Nine Steps more and more over the years. I love how it is a clean cut thriller without any annoying sub-plots or anything.

      Thank you for subscribing! This takes my grand total to four. 🙂

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