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The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

The Thirty-Nine Steps (original 1915; edition 2007)

by John Buchan

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3,2521131,702 (3.55)383
Title:The Thirty-Nine Steps
Authors:John Buchan
Info:Penguin Books Ltd (UK) (2007), Paperback, 160 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:fiction, espionage, Canadiana, great cover

Work details

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (Author) (1915)

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2.75 stars. Contrived and repetitious but fairly entertaining in places. The play's better. ;) ( )
  Michael.Xolotl | Nov 11, 2015 |
This is one of THE great adventure stories! I first read it about forty years ago and I have reread it numerous times since.

John Buchan seems to epitomise the great Victorian work ethic - now best known as a writer of cracking adventure stories featuring upright, "decent" heroes, he was a prolific worker. In addition to his thirty novels and various volumes of short stories, he also produced a multi-volume history of India and biographies of Sir Walter Scott and the Earl of Montrose. Writing was, however, really only his second career. His primary vocation was the law, and he built up an extensive practice as a tax barrister. From the Bar, like his fictional avatar Sir Edward Leithen, he progressed into politics (as a Unionist though one espousing both free trade and women's suffrage), eventually entering Parliament on the Unionist ticket in 1927. He was subsequently appointed Governor-General of Canada shortly after his elevation to the House of Lords as Baron Tweedsmuir. Where did he find the time?

While the plots and subject matter of his novels have recently fallen prey to satire for their idealised evocation of a Corinthian age that probably never really existed, his prose is always beautifully constructed and flows with inner cadences. This short novel introduces Richard Hannay, recently returned to Britain from Rhodesia where he has secured his fortune as a mining engineer. Bored out of his skull by the trivial interests of the other members of his social circle he is on the brink of returning to South Africa when he encounters Franklin Scudder, a frightened man with a scary secret.

Scudder starts to give Hannay all sorts of frightening insights to the prevailing European political situation and the inevitability of war against an over-powerful Germany, the catalyst for which will be the imminent assassination of Karolides, the last hope for sustained stability in the Balkans. However, Scudder himself is murdered and Hannay is put in the frame as his killer. He decides to flee to South West Scotland where he hopes to be able to lie low until he can muster sufficient evidence of the plot against Karolides.

Buchan is always at his finest when describing Scottish landscapes, and the Galloway wilderness almost becomes a character in its own right. Hannay is hunted relentlessly through the varied Galloway terrain, both by the police and by pursuers of an altogether more deadly provenance.

What has always amazed me most about "the Thirty Nine Steps" is the recurrent failure of film makers to bring it to the screen with any success, given that its plot-driven nature would seem to lend itself so readily to cinematic treatment. Hitchcock completely eviscerated the plot in his 1935 film, introducing a bizarre music-hall scene which was retained in the 1959 version directed by Ralph Thomas and starring Kenneth More. Meanwhile the 1970s version had Robert Powell hanging off the hands of Big Ben. Even the recent BBC version, though truer to the book than all of the others, felt the need to introduce a spurious romance element. Certainly Buchan did not do female characters well, a failing that he acknowledged - I don't think there is a single line of dialogue delivered by a woman in the whole novel.

It would also be easy to pick holes in the plot. [CAUTION - possible spoilers] There is, for example, an overwhelming dependence upon bizarre coincidence; while fleeing in a stolen car Hannay has a crash with someone whose godfather happens to be Permanent Secretary at the Home Office; fleeing from his pursuers he takes refuge in a private house only to find that it is owned by the leader of the pack from whom he is trying to escape; at one point he is locked in a storeroom only to find that it is full of explosives and fuses; and coming upon a solitary driver in the wilds of Galloway it turns out to be someone whom he knew from London, even though we have previously been told of the paucity of his social life during his brief stint in the capital.

Does any of this matter? Absolutely not! The story was written as a gripping adventure story, and it still succeeds in holding the reader's (and re-reader's) attention. One hundred years since its first publication it still works perfectly well. ( )
1 vote Eyejaybee | Aug 21, 2015 |
The Thirty-Nine Steps was written and is set in World War 1 era Europe, where conspiracies of worldwide war are at work. The story’s main character, Richard Hannay is leading a typical middle class life when he gets thrust in the middle of it all as a stranger shows up telling him of this conspiracy. When the stranger winds up dead, Richard takes it upon himself to bring the killers to justice and prevent the war from happening.

This novel is part thriller, part spy novel. In comparison to other novels from that era, this is written at a fairly fast pace. Although conspiratorial in nature, it was interesting how many of the things written in the book came to pass and how true to life the novel was. Buchan shows a high skill-level in his writing. Richard Hanney is a bit of an everyman—someone who gets thrust into a crazy situation and rises to the occasion. My only real complaint is that the villains in the story weren’t terribly well-developed and their motives seemed a bit shaky. The final confrontation made me feel a bit ambivalent. This was a good read. I’m generally not into fiction written over a century ago, but I think this novel works.

Carl Alves – author of Two For Eternity ( )
  Carl_Alves | Aug 10, 2015 |
I came across this book on The Classic Tales Podcast and listened to it that way. It's basically an enjoyable old spy thriller, not too long and with a straightforward, linear plot. The premise is sound and plausible, and the protagonist is well-sketched. ( )
  joeld | Aug 7, 2015 |
"The trouble about him was that he was too romantic. He had the artistic temperament, and wanted a story to be better than God meant it to be." -- John Buchan, "The Thirty-Nine Steps"

John Buchan's words above, from his most famous novel, "The Thirty-Nine Steps," describe one of his characters, not himself. Buchan was not one to try to make a story "better than God meant it to be." His 1915 novel, in the version I read, is just 120 pages long, a fraction of what most espionage thrillers run today. Buchan, a pioneer in the genre, told just the basic story. A full century later the story still makes exciting reading, even if for anyone who has seen Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 movie based on the book, it feels like something is missing.

That's because Hitchcock, who had an artistic temperament, added embellishments that Buchan, who was still living at the time, may have considered an attempt to make it better than God meant it to be. There's no woman, no character for Madeleine Carroll to play, in Buchan's novel. Nor is there a character called Mr. Memory, who reveals the 39 steps at the climax of the film. In Buchan's story, the 39 steps are, in fact, 39 steps, a staircase leading down to the beach, where spies plan to rendezvous.

The basic plot remain unchanged in the film version. Richard Hannay learns of a German plot to learn British secrets before the outbreak of war. A murder in his flat sends him on the run, both to escape the German spies and to escape the police, who consider him the prime suspect in the murder. The story is mostly a long chase, with several narrow escapes.

Hitchcock's movie would probably not be regarded as the classic it is today had it not been for the embellishments the director added. Yet the original novel reads just fine the way it is, as God, or at least John Buchan, intended. ( )
1 vote hardlyhardy | Aug 3, 2015 |
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» Add other authors (62 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Buchan, JohnAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Ardizzone, EdwardIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gorey, EdwardIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Harvie, ChristopherEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hynynen, AnssiTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Praetzellis, AdrianNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Thorn, DavidNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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To Thomas Arthur Nelson
(Lothian and Border Horse)

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 possibilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible. During an illness last winter I exhausted my store of those aids to cheerfulness, and was driven to write one for myself. This little volume is the result, and I should like to put your name on it in memory of our long friendship, in the days when the wildest fictions are so much less improbable than the facts.
First words
Richard Hannay is not, on the face of it, the most exciting of adventurers, yet more than any other hero he has come to embody the man of action pitted against the forces of misrule.
I returned from the City about three o'clock on that May afternoon pretty well disgusted with life.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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This is the original novel, there exist a number of adapted and abridged versions for english learners that should NOT be combined into it.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0141441178, Paperback)

A gripping tale of adventure that has enthralled readers since it was first published, John Buchan's "The Thirty-Nine Steps" is edited with an introduction and notes by Sir John Keegan in "Penguin Classics". Adventurer Richard Hannay has just returned from South Africa and is thoroughly bored with his London life - until a spy is murdered in his flat, just days after having warned Hannay of an assassination plot that could plunge Britain into a war with Germany. An obvious suspect for the police and an easy target for the killers, Hannay picks up the trail left by the assassins, fleeing to Scotland, where he must use all his wits to stay one step ahead of the game - and warn the government before it is too late. One of the most popular adventure stories ever written, "The Thirty-Nine Steps" established John Buchan as the original thriller writer and inspired many other novelists and filmmakers including Alfred Hitchcock. In his introduction to this edition, historian Sir John Keegan compares Buchan's life - his experiences in South Africa, his love of Scotland and his moral integrity - with his fictional hero. This edition also includes notes, a chronology and further reading. John Buchan (1875-1940) was born in Perth, and first began writing at Oxford University, producing two volumes of essays, four novels and two collections of stories and poems before the age of twenty-five. During the First World War he worked both as a journalist and at Britain's War Propaganda Bureau, eventually becoming Director of Information. He published his most popular novel, "The Thirty-Nine Steps", in 1915 - and it has never since been out of print. If you enjoyed "The Thirty-Nine Steps", you might like G.K. Chesterton's "The Man Who Was Thursday", also available in "Penguin Classics". "Richard Hannay is...a modern knight-errant". ("Observer"). "Once you've started, you can't put the book down". (Stella Rimington).

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:01 -0400)

(see all 9 descriptions)

Richard Hannay, a mining engineer, 'retires' at the age of 37, having made his fortune in Africa. He finds London dull, until he becomes caught up in a sensational plot to precipitate a pan-European war. Hannay is at first disinclined to believe the young American, with his incredible tales of international intrigue, and hints of a terrible secret. But when the American turns up dead in Hannay's flat, Hannay is forced to flee the attentions of both the conspirators and the law. Hannay is hunted across the Scottish moors by police and spy-ring alike, and must outwit his intelligent and pitiless enemy in the corridors of Whitehall and, finally, at the site of the mysterious thirty-nine steps.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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14 editions of this book were published by Audible.com.

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Penguin Australia

4 editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 0141182857, 0141441178, 0141031263, 0141194723

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