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

by John Buchan

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3,1381051,792 (3.56)349
Member:HydrogenGuy
Title:The Thirty-Nine Steps
Authors:John Buchan
Info:Penguin Books Ltd (UK) (2007), Paperback, 160 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:***
Tags:fiction, espionage, Canadiana, great cover

Work details

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

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English (104)  French (1)  All languages (105)
Showing 1-5 of 104 (next | show all)
This is one of those rare instances where the movie was definitely better than the book. I can't remember much from the Hitchcock version, but PBS Masterpiece broadcast an updated version of The 39 Steps which was engaging, witty, and fun.

The original source material has plenty of movement--it certainly doesn't bother with character--but it strangely lacks much excitement. Though fully the first half of the story involves one long chase, the circumstances are reported so matter-of-factly that they lack any tension.

The 39 Steps, written in 1915, is recognized as the book that launched the whole genre of spy thrillers. As such, it is to be respected for its historical import. But as a "good read" almost a century later, I would search for an alternative among its many descendents. ( )
  kvrfan | Apr 25, 2015 |
A classic, published in 1915, It is 100 years old this year. I've always wanted to read it and it is very quick, an easy one to get off the list of 1001 Books. It is an espionage novel, written by John Buchan during a time when he was sick in bed and had read everything he could get his hands on. It's fast paced, you really never know why or what is really going on but the main character is running from the police and trying to avoid capture by the spies that killed a man in his apartment. He had been bored until this adventure overtook him. ( )
  Kristelh | Apr 6, 2015 |
I am not sure why it took me so long to get around to reading Buchan - I had always known about his novels and they had always been somewhere on my TBR list but somehow I never got to them. I guess it was time to rectify that.

Meet Richard Hannay - 37 years old, just back from Rhodesia (and now technically retired) and really bored. After all the excitement in South Africa, London and Britain are boring in the spring of 1914 (working out the year is not hard once you read the novel because the reference to the impeding and starting war is there but it is also as easy to figure it out in the first chapter when Hannay mentions the Balkan Wars and we know it is May - it cannot be 1913 because they are still raging and it cannot be 1915 because WWI had not started yet).

Hannay is ready to catch a train to somewhere, anywhere if nothing happens... and then something does happen - a guy he had never met before confides in him about a huge conspiracy involving the powerful men of the day and within days, the guy is dead in Hannay's flat. The story is so outlandish that our hero is not sure how much to believe of it... but after the murder, he decides that the story must have merit and goes on a run in Scotland. Of course he manages to do it in a way that makes sure that he is blamed for the murder and our bored man is not on the run from both the police and the murderers.

And somewhere along the way, it turns out that the conspiracy is not just real but that it is a lot more complicated than he thought. During his run Hannay meets all kind of different people - from a road worker to a politician wannabe to an old acquaintance; he manages to stumble right into the spies house (because the conspiracy involves foreign spies)- of course he does, there is no reason not to. Add to this a plane, a big explosion and Scotland Yard not just believing him but helping him at the end and the story is complete.

It is a spy story from the times before every spy had to have a beautiful woman on his arm; before the time when a woman was mandatory for a novel and especially a spy novel. It is called one of the first novels with a man on a run and it is - the description of the run and the places where he goes through are done very well and make you want to read more.

Buchan himself compares the novel to the dime novels so popular in the States at the time. And it really is very similar in tone to those pulp novels. But it is also very British in the way that only authors from the empire can make it. And despite its brevity, it makes you want to read about Hannay more - at least to see what else happens to him when he is bored... and what happens when he is not. ( )
1 vote AnnieMod | Feb 5, 2015 |
Reading The Thirty-Nine Steps today is an odd experience. On the one hand, there are modes of thinking and acting that seem decidedly old fashioned, if not completely obsolete. On the other hand, Buchan's suspense and tradecraft are timeless.

Richard Hannay, a Scottish mining engineer, had made a small fortune in South Africa, and had now returned to the UK looking for the next stage in his life. Sitting in London, "the best bored man in the United Kingdom", he had all but made up his mind to go back to South Africa when things got really interesting.

A terrified man, announcing himself dead, turned up on Hannay's doorstep, begging to be taken in. Hannay decided he was probably a madman, but let him in. The stranger had a tale of intrigue which culminated in the planned assassination of Greek Prime Minister Karolides when he visited London on June 15th, just three weeks hence. A few days later, Hannay came home to find his guest skewered to the floor with a knife through his heart. That was just Chapter 1.

Hannay of course was the obvious suspect. He fled, taking with him a notebook belonging to the dead man. He set out for Galloway in southwest Scotland, the closest wild place he could think of, and one where he felt he could easily pass. The notebook was in cypher, which Hannay cracked. He discovered a much more sinister plot. This was May 1914 and Karolides death would be the trigger sparking a war for which Britain was totally unprepared.

Hannay was now being sought as a murderer throughout the UK. His picture had been made public. He couldn't turn himself in with his hare brained story, so he decided to try to prevent the assassination. However, he was now in even worse danger from the Black Stone; the people who had murdered the man in his flat and who were behind the plot.

Buchan takes the reader on a great romp through Dumfries and Galloway, with Hannay on the run from the double threats. Hannay lived by his wits, forced to make snap judgements about those he encountered along the way. Most of the time he was right; at times he was dangerously wrong. Buchan himself was a Scot and a major in the WWI intelligence corps. Both these aspects come through in his writing. There are descriptions of the rural world and its people, and then there are some valuable lessons in deception.
If a man could get into perfectly different surroundings from those in which he had first been 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.

A fool tries to look different; a clever man looks the same and
is different.

If you are playing a part, you will never keep it up unless you convince yourself that you are
it.
Hannay narrates his own story, giving the reader glimpses into that prewar world, where being a gentleman was enough in just about any circumstance: A man of my sort, who has travelled around the world in rough places, gets on perfectly well with two classes, what you may call the upper and the lower. He understands them and they understand him. I was at home with herds and tramps and roadmen, and I was sufficiently at my ease with people like Sir Walter and the men I had met the night before. I can't explain why, but it is a fact. But what fellows like me don't understand is the great comfortable, satisfied middle-class world, the folk that live in villas and suburbs. He doesn't know how they look at things, he doesn't understand their conventions, and he is as shy of them as of a black mamba.
Luckily for him, he did not know just how far that rising middle class would go.

Looking back a century from 2015, there is a welcome lack of technology in Hannay's world. Such a story today would be full of tracking devices, computer analysis and weapons. It would be over in no time. Hannay could only rely on his innate abilities. The Thirty-Nine Steps is the first in a series of Richard Hannay novels. I look forward to reading more.
2 vote SassyLassy | Feb 2, 2015 |
If you have seen either of the early film adaptations but never read the book there’s a lot you wouldn’t recognise (the 1978 adaptation is reportedly more faithful than those from 1935, 1959 or 2008 though I can’t remember it well enough to make the claim on my own) so let me help you out. It is 1914. Pre-war. Richard Hannay is in England after years of life as a mining engineer in Rhodesia. He’s bored (because he doesn’t have a chap to run about with). He returns home one night to find an American on his doorstep. The man, Scudder, has faked his own death and claims to know of a plot to assassinate the Greek Premier during his imminent visit to London (heaven knows why he selected Hannay – a total stranger – alone in all the world to share this apparently vital piece of information with). The aforementioned Scudder is murdered a few days later. Rather than contacting any kind of authority Hannay disguises himself as a milkman to escape the prying eyes of whoever murdered Scudder and the police and catches a train to Scotland where he proposes to hide out until nearer the due date of the assassination and then warn ‘one of the government people’ of the threat to the Greek politician. This is as believable as the plot gets. Ridiculousness piles upon absurd coincidence for the remainder of this brief tale (it clocks in at under 4 hours in the audio version I listened to or under 100 pages in the Project Gutenberg download I skimmed).

I suppose I’m being a little harsh in that the preposterous story might not have seemed quite so outlandish a hundred years ago but when a book has nothing else – no character development, no thought-provoking exploration of themes – then the quality (or lack thereof) of the plot will get all the attention. Though perhaps I’ll allow a digression to mention the quite confronting casual bigotry on display. I know we have to make allowances for the writing being of its time. But still: ugh.

Getting back to the story. I now know that it was originally published as a series of instalments in a magazine which makes a lot of sense as every chapter finishes with an absurd cliffhanger. I suppose that kept people returning to buy the next issue but it makes for a somewhat alarmingly paced tale when all strung together. There are repeated sequences of Hannay meeting the right person to help him escape his current predicament (however unlikely their appearance at that moment might be), the donning of a disguise, some running and hiding (usually in fields) and an in-the-nick-of-time escape. In between, our hero proves most worthy of the sobriquet for there is little he cannot turn his hand to (code-breaking, public speaking, setting explosives and generally outwitting all manner of gents) (and unlike all the films the novel is populated almost entirely by gents though I do recall a woman offering shelter and cheese at one point). I know it is meant to be suspenseful but there is never a single moment’s doubt that Hannay will succeed and all without incurring any kind of permanent injury (though how he managed to pick up a very convenient case of Malaria in the middle of Scotland is, I suppose, something of a mystery).

The book is a forgettable romp. Its language and attitude are dated and its substance is…well…almost non existent. And after so much adventure the ending is a whimper rather than a bang which is something of a disappointment. But it’s enjoyable enough as an example of the British “Tally Ho Chaps” sensibility in action (and in the early days of the war I’m sure this would have been appreciated) and perhaps worth the short time reading it occupies to understand the origins of the now well-worn trope of an innocent man on the run.
  bsquaredinoz | Jan 3, 2015 |
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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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I returned from the City about three o'clock on that May afternoon pretty well disgusted with life.
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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 Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:59:51 -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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Editions: 0141182857, 0141441178, 0141031263, 0141194723

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