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The Thirty-Nine Steps: Book Review

The Thirty-Nine Steps was written by John Buchan and published in 1915. It was one of the first “conspiracy” spy thrillers, and is regularly voted one of the top ten spy thrillers of all time.

Warning: Major spoilers are blacked out like this secret . To view them, just select/highlight them.

The Thirty-Nine Steps: Logline

Just before the First World War, a Scottish adventurer finds a dead man in his flat, murdered by a German spy ring. The prime suspect for the murder, he goes on the run, and must evade capture, clear his name and save his country.

The Thirty-Nine Steps: Plot Summary

It is 1914, just before the outbreak of World War One. Richard Hannay returns to London, having made his fortune in Africa.

Hannay meets a man who claims to be investigating a German spy ring known as the Black Stone. Hannay lets the man hide in his flat, but later finds him murdered. He fears the Black Stone will come for him next, as the murdered man had given him a notebook for safe-keeping before his death.

Reasoning that the police will arrest him for the murder, Hannay decides to go into hiding in his native Scotland. He escapes dressed as a milkman and takes the train to Scotland.

Hannay cracks the code in the notebook. It describes a German plan to start the coming war with a bolt-from-the-blue attack on the Royal Navy. The Black Stone are responsible for enabling the attack by stealing a document showing the Royal Navy’s dispositions.  The phrase “The Thirty-Nine Steps” is prominent  in the notebook, but without explanation.

Hannay is pursued by an aeroplane, by policemen and by groups of  the Black Stone’s men searching for him. Every time they get close, he has a lucky escape. He also meets a local landowner who believes his story and writes an introductory letter to a contact at the Foreign Office.

Eventually, the   Black Stone captures  Hannay . Luckily, the room they lock him in contains explosives and he blasts himself out.

Hannay returns to London to meet his Foreign Office contact, Sir Walter Bullivant. Bullivant promises to deal with the matter. After leaving Bullivant’s house, the police spot him. Still suspecting him as a murderer, they chase him back to Sir Walter’s house. Hannay enters just in time to see one of his pursuers from Scotland leaving the house dressed as the First Sea Lord…

The man is an imposter with incredible mimicry skills, and a German spy. Hannay must stop him from returning to Germany with Britain’s naval secrets.

Hannay tries to work out what ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps’ are,   as he feels this is the key to catching the spy before he escapes. He deduces the phrase must refer to cliff-side villas in Kent, from where the spy could descend the steps to take a yacht to Germany.

With Bullivant, Hannay finds a house backing on to the cliffs that has thirty-nine steps down to the sea. There is also a yacht offshore and he poses as a fisherman to reconnoitre it. The officer in charge appears to be German.

Hannay returns and confronts the three men at the house, who claim to be innocent Englishmen. Eventually, Hannay penetrates their cover identities. Now sure they are the Black Stone, he calls in the police and two conspirators are captured. The last spy escapes to the yacht with the secrets, but unknown to him the yacht had been boarded before Hannay entered the villa. He is apprehended and the Royal Navy is safe.

The Thirty-Nine Steps: Alternative Cover

The iconic image of The Thirty-Nine Steps is the man on the run. I loved the “staring in to the sun” feel of the silhouette and the lens flare. I thought reversing out the title balanced a cover that was bottom heavy otherwise, due to the plainness of the background.

The Thirty Nine Steps Alternative Book Cover

The Thirty-Nine Steps: Analysis

Plot

The Thirty-Nine Steps was the prototype of the ‘conspiracy’ sub-genre of the spy thriller (see Spy Novel Plots ).

The ‘Conspiracy’ Plot

The Protagonist:

  1. Witnesses an inciting incident by a group of Conspirators headed by an unknown Antagonist.
  2. Realises they are not safe from the Conspirators.
  3. Is also not safe from the authorities, as they are tricked or infiltrated by the Conspirators.
  4. Goes the run, pursued by both the Conspirators and the authorities.
  5. Involves one or more Allies in their escape (Optionally there is romance subplot with one of the Allies).
  6. Narrowly avoids capture and death (or is captured and escapes) by both the Conspirators and the authorities.
  7. Works out who the Conspirators are.
  8. Persuades the authorities they should work together to stop the Conspirators.
  9. Confronts the Conspirators, unmasks the Antagonist and stops (or fails to stop) the Conspiracy.

Six Days of the Condor  and  North By Northwest  both follow the Conspiracy plot formula pioneered by The Thirty Nine Steps.

Narrative Drive

Reading the plot summary above, it’s clear that The Thirty-Nine Steps relies mostly on fast pace to hold the reader’s interest.

It was written originally for serial publication in Blackwood’s Magazine and shows that origin in being only novella length – around thirty thousand words. The thing with serials is  things have to happen. Each chapter has a physical or mental problem for Hannay to solve and ends in a cliffhanger; the narrative drive is relentless .

Curiously, the dénouement is one of the least action packed chapters. It turns on the somewhat ridiculous idea that Hannay can’t recognise the spies who have chased him throughout the story. Once he does see through their disguise, they offer only token resistance.

Credibility

Hannay’s miraculous ability to escape from impossible situations through coincidence, the intervention of previously unmentioned people, and pure luck makes it hard to take his jeopardy seriously. Buchan himself did not regard his ‘shockers’ as his best work, and also wrote non-fiction and more literary novels. The writing is a hell of a lot better than the hackneyed prose of William Le Queux  though.

Of course, the language and the character’s attitudes are from a bygone age; the novel was written just before the First World War. That old-fashioned Britishness is part of the story’s charm, just as it is in the The Riddle of the Sands.

The Thirty-Nine Steps: My Verdict

Hannay’s ability to escape traps through pure luck stretches credibility to breaking point for the modern reader. However, with its huge narrative drive The Thirty-Nine Steps  showed the way the spy thriller had to develop. It remains a fun, quick read and well worth an afternoon’s attention.

The Thirty-Nine Steps: The Movies

Robert Donat in The Thirty-Nine Steps

The Thirty-Nine Steps is a perennial favourite for movie adaptations, having been dramatised many times for film, television, radio and theatre.

The most famous adaptation is Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 version. Hitchcock took the original conspiracy thriller and turned it into a romantic comedy-thriller. He has Hannay thrown together with, and at times handcuffed to, Pamela, an attractive young woman who he meets on the train to Scotland. The ending is also completely different to the book. Here’s the trailer:

The Thirty-Nine Steps was also remade in 1959, 1978 and 2008. None of the other filmed versions of  have been particularly faithful to the book either. They all change the secret the Black Stone have stolen, the major characters other than Hannay, the nature of the ‘thirty-nine steps’, or other key details.  This is a symptom of the fact that the original book has a high concept , but the ending is neither action-packed nor visual enough.

Want to Read it?

The Thirty-Nine Steps  novel is available at Project Gutenberg here .

The Hitchcock movie version is available on Amazon US here,  and Amazon UK here.

Agree? Disagree?

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