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The thirty-nine steps by John Buchan

The thirty-nine steps (original 1915; edition 1964)

by John Buchan, Edward Ardizzone (Illustrator)

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Title:The thirty-nine steps
Authors:John Buchan (Author)
Other authors:Edward Ardizzone (Illustrator)
Info:London : Dent, 1964. Hardcover. 145 pages
Collections:LT connections, Read but unowned, Favorites
Tags:20th century, adventure, chase, conspiracy, Edward Ardizzone, England, espionage, fiction, hardcover, illustrated, juvenilia, London, memory, murder, music hall, mystery, novel, police, public speaking, published 1915, rail, Scotland, series, spy, suspense, thriller, UK author

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

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English (100)  French (1)  All languages (101)
Showing 1-5 of 100 (next | show all)
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 |
Synopsis: Scottish born Hanney comes back from South Africa to his flat in London only to be confronted by an American who appears to know about an anarchist plot to destabilize Europe. After an apparent suicide and the murder of the American, Hanney flees for his life and ends up hiding in the Lake Country of England. Never knowing who to trust, Hanney must break up the plot and try to capture the anarchists.
Review: This is one of the earliest novels about spies and plots to overthrow governments. While there are sections that are overly detailed, the story is involving. ( )
  DrLed | Nov 26, 2014 |
I decided to read this book after seeing it in The Guardian’s list of the top one hundred novels, the sort of list I suppose I should have mistrusted. After all, there are just too many great novels for one person to read and appraise.

I know I certainly wouldn’t have included Buchan’s book. Described in the Guardian as a cross between a Sherlock Holmes and (anachronistically) a James Bond novel, I felt it lacked any depth. In fact I’d say Fleming’s novels were closer to this one, being full of action with precious little characterisation. And I think the Bond books had less to stretch the credulity than this book. Even Buchan seems aware that he’s going beyond the believable when he has his narrator, Hannay, say: ‘So far I had been miraculously lucky. The milkman, the literary innkeeper, Sir Harry, the roadman, and the idiotic Marmie, were all pieces of undeserved good fortune’. And this is partly why I rate the novel so poorly. It just luck that keeps Hannay going – there’s nothing to like about this man unlike Hall’s Quiller who relies on his capabilities to stay on top. Where le Carré offers us rounded characters, Buchan just relies on the success of his hero to attract the reader – all very shallow.

What interest I had in the book came from the way it reflected the time in which it was written, not so much the expected anti-German feeling as the sort of language used by the characters (such as ‘Sir Walter Bullivanr – down at his country cottage for Whitsuntide’- reflecting the Church’s still dominant influence) and the portrayal of a long-lost England of open countryside and moors and little villages before motorways and commerce swallowed just about the lot. ( )
  evening | Sep 15, 2014 |
I had read this years ago, but I literally didn't remember one word of it. According to the preface, it was written as a lark by a gentleman who had been ill and became bored reading dime novels. He thought he could write his own and went on to write several more. As a first effort, it was far more than just serviceable. It was entertaining and a bit suspenseful. You definitely could identify with the protagonist Richard Hannay. I look forward to reading Buchan's later Hannay works. ( )
  AliceAnna | Aug 31, 2014 |
Also read in June 1993

The Rupert Penry-Jones adaption that I finally watched drove me back to read because, really, there were no suffragettes or traitors or strafing runs (R P-J gazing was the main reason to watch). The book is an old-fashioned TGR with lots of action and derring-do. The only complaint is that it just ENDS. Very abruptly because he was done, I'm guessing, but a bit startling.
  amyem58 | Jul 3, 2014 |
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» Add other authors (86 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Buchan, JohnAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Ardizzone, EdwardIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Finn B. LarsenTranslatorsecondary 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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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)

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4 editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 0141182857, 0141441178, 0141031263, 0141194723

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