The Thirty-Nine Steps
This is the most famous novel by John Buchan. Most superficial discussion of Buchan the writer starts and stops with The Thirty-Nine Steps, and moves swiftly on to talk about the Hitchcock film, The 39 Steps (note the different title), or Patrick Barlow’s hilarious stage version from 2005 (which became the fifth-longest running play in London’s West End). However, what is often not realised is that this short spy/detective/thriller was Buchan’s 17th published work. After its success he became a best-selling writer of thrillers and adventures for another 20 years, publishing 29 novels in total, as well as nine collections of essays and short stories, and nine biographies.
Buchan began writing The Thirty-Nine Steps in August 1914 while he (or his daughter Alice: accounts vary) was recovering from illness, and he was unable to join the army due to his age and ill-health. The book was published in the following September by the magazine Land and Water, and published as a novel by Blackwoods shortly after that. It was a rocketing success, and has never been out of print since. Four films were made of the germ of the story (1935, 1958, 1978, 2008: a fifth one is in preparation, so we hear), and numerous BBC radio versions, but as far as I know no TV series have been made of the novel. A six-part spin-off TV series called Hannay was produced and broadcast by the British independent TV station Thames TV in 1989, using the name and some of the background of the main character, Richard Hannay, but in a series of adventures which had nothing to do with the novel at all.
The Thirty-Nine Steps is commonly thought of as a Scottish book, but the parts set in Scotland take up only three and a half chapters out of the book’s ten. Tellingly, these include the parts that readers remember most: the chase scenes on the hills and Hannay’s encounters in disguise. Popular memory is muddled between the Buchan and Hitchcock versions of how Hannay got up to Scotland, what he did there and how he got away, but the scenes from Buchan’s original, that Hitchcock retained in his film for their dramatic power and structural function, were irrepressibly Scottish. Here Buchan repeated his successful paradox from his earlier novel The Power-House (published in 1913 as a magazine story, but not published in book form until after the success of The Thirty-Nine Steps, in 1916), where the hero struggles to evade enemies in the peaceful surroundings of an unsuspecting London. In south-west Scotland Hannay is a stranger in a strange land being hunted by an unseen enemy, but in country very familiar to many of his readers.
The Thirty-Nine Steps shares much of the heroes’ characterisation with The Power-House. Hannay and Leithen both spend frustrating amounts of time waiting for something to happen. Both end up in a running race through London’s West End to get to sanctuary. They both share a dislike of working with the police unless absolutely necessary. (These amateur detectives can handle the unmasking of international secret societies all by themselves.) Leithen showed the upper-class distaste of publicity which Hannay would later display in The Three Hostages. But although The Thirty-Nine Steps does have some of the established elements of a detective story (a dead body, and clues to be interpreted and connected), this tale is not detective fiction: it is Buchan’s first pure thriller.
Perhaps, although the form is misleading, the core elements may still add up to detection. Can Hannay be regarded as a detective? The story may originally have been in Buchan’s mind as a mystery of a body and a moorland chase, but he wrapped it up in an eve-of-war plot to sell the book in wartime conditions. The start of the novel seems conventional now: in 1915 it would have been breathtakingly swift, presenting the reader very early on with a body and a clue hidden in the tobacco jar. When the enemy closes in, and Hannay realises the threat of the police, the imperative to get away quickly, for self-preservation as well as to solve the mystery, makes the methodical and painstaking approach of a detective redundant. There is no time for searching the apartment for clues to who killed Scudder. Hannay’s priority is searching for the missing notebook, in which he suspects the clues to the greater, political, international, mystery are held. International politics take precedence over the domestically dead body in a living room, because the dead body is a spy.
The Literary Innkeeper, when told an embroidered version of Hannay’s story, exclaims ‘My God! It is all pure Rider Haggard and Conan Doyle’. Hannay has spun a yarn straight out of Haggard about a chase across Africa to make the truth more believable to his credulous listener. The Conan Doyle part was the truth. This may be helpful in indicating how Buchan regarded detective fiction, that it was inherently more believable, and more likely, than exotic adventure. (Hitchcock inverted this idea in his film, when Hannay tries to persuade the milkman with the truth, but is only believed when he spins a tale.) The Literary Innkeeper longs for adventure and romance, but he only gets detection.
Hannay claims in The Thirty-Nine Steps that he is no Sherlock Holmes, but he makes deductions from clues given by Scudder. He is not cerebral like E C Bentley’s Philip Trent, nor is he an assassin like one of Edgar Wallace’s Four Just Men. He is a new thing, a physically active thriller hero facing the challenge of intellectual exertion because he has been thrown into the role of a detective. Hannay makes time and space for a detective’s reflection by getting onto a train and sleeping in the heather, but he is continually shunted out of these reflective spaces by the imperative of pursuit. Buchan’s genius lay in combining the two.
Kate Macdonald, 2006, updated 2022
The 39 Steps (1959, Ralph Thomas, remake of the Hitchcock one); https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tIyB3_V8EMg
The Thirty-Nine Steps (1978, Don Sharp)
The 39 Steps (2008 BBC Production;) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fzqgHmYiApA