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

by John Buchan (Author), Edward Ardizzone (Illustrator)

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3,0281001,875 (3.56)303
Member:TheoClarke
Title:The thirty-nine steps
Authors:John Buchan (Author)
Other authors:Edward Ardizzone (Illustrator)
Info:London : Dent, 1964. Hardcover. 145 pages
Collections:Favorites, Wishlist, To buy used
Rating:*****
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

Work details

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

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» See also 303 mentions

English (99)  French (1)  All languages (100)
Showing 1-5 of 99 (next | show all)
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 |
Synopsis/blurb................

John Buchan wrote "The Thirty-Nine Steps" while he was seriously ill at the beginning of World War I. In it, he introduces his most famous hero, Richard Hannay, who, despite claiming to be an "ordinary fellow", is caught up in the dramatic race against a plot to devastate the British war effort. Hannay is hunted across the Scottish moors by police and a pitiless enemy in the corridors of Whitehall and, finally, at the site of the mysterious 39 steps. The best-known of Buchan's thrillers, this novel has been continuously in print since first publication and has been filmed three times.

Other Buchan "World Classics" include "Witchwood" and "Greenmantle".

My take......

I doubt I will be providing much original thought on this classic book which was published 99 years ago. It has 460 reviews on Amazon UK – soon to be 461, and nearly 10,000 ratings on Goodreads.The Thirty-Nine Steps introduces us to Richard Hannay, who subsequently figures in 4 more novels by Buchan, none of which I have read.
They are;
2. Greenmantle (1916)
3. Mr Standfast (1918)
4. The Three Hostages (1924)
5. The Island of Sheep (1936)

As an aside, the time-span between the 4th and 5th books is interesting, I wonder why? Saying that - Buchan did live an interesting and full life...at various times....Unionist MP, Governor of Canada, Government War propagandist, Army enlistment, diplomatic service in South Africa, church elder, novelist.

We open and Hannay is restless and in need of an adventure to stimulate him. One soon arrives in the appearance of a stranger who enlists Hannay’s help in hiding him. The man, Scudder has faked his death and tells Hannay he is being followed by a German gang of spies. Scudder confides that he has uncovered a plot to kill the Greek Premier and also that there is a scheme afoot to steal British plans that have been prepared in the event of an outbreak of war. Scudder is discovered murdered the next day in Hannay’s flat and Richard, a likely suspect in the murder flees, managing to evade the Germans who are watching him.

A sense of obligation and duty compels Hannay to try and thwart the assassination attempt. With three weeks to lay low until the events Scudder has outlined are scheduled to begin, Hannay takes a train to Scotland to kill time. Having taking Scudder’s notebook when fleeing London and deciphered his coded notes, these appear to contradict what Scudder previously told him.

Over the next week or two he is relentlessly pursued both by aeroplane and car, by both the Germans and the police, still anxious to arrest Hannay for murder. His adventures see him posing as a road-mender at one time and unbelievably making a political speech for a prospective politician, Sir Harry at a rally. Having taken Harry into his confidence, Harry fortuitously has a relative in the Foreign Office and writes Hannay a letter of introduction.

Still on the run, Hannay survives being taken prisoner by the enemy. After managing to escape, Richard returns to London and contacts Harry’s relative – Sir Walter Bullivant; unburdening himself of his secrets. The Greek PM still gets assassinated. Our erstwhile hero still feels there is more at risk and gatecrashes a meeting at Bullivant’s house where he catches a glimpse of one of his Scottish pursuers in disguise. Hannay’s adversary is now in possession of material damaging to Britain’s war plans.

Hannay works with British military leaders to discover the significance of Scudder’s phrase – The Thirty Nine-Steps in a bid to save the day.

Overall verdict – I really liked this one. It felt a bit like a Boys Own adventure and to be honest there’s a place in my reading schedule for books of this type occasionally. One criticism would be that Buchan does seem to rely on some rather unlikely coincidences to help Hannay (and the author?) out of a jam at times. Last minor gripe would be the one of language with references made to “the Jew” and a “Jewish plot.” I wouldn’t dare to tar Buchan with an anti-semite brush, but 100 years after this was written it sits a little bit uncomfortably with me.

Happily, reading this managed to tick a number of boxes for me. I have a couple of signed-up for challenges that this meets the criteria for, plus one of my own.
Read Scotland – tick.
Vintage Mystery – Golden – tick (not quite sure which box on my bingo card I will be ticking just yet)
Espionage Challenge – tick

In addition, my son’s Christmas present to both my wife and me were tickets to see the West End production of The Thirty-Nine Steps last Saturday, something I will briefly cover in my next blog post. I managed to read the book before seeing the show, spoilsport that I am.

4 from 5

I do have a paperback copy of this around the house somewhere, but couldn’t locate it, so I got a free version from Amazon UK for my kindle. There are a couple of other Buchan/Hannay books on the site available for nowt, so I now have Greenmantle and Mr Standfast waiting. ( )
  col2910 | Apr 17, 2014 |


Still a ripping good spy thriller nearly 100 years later. ( )
  flightsafancy | Feb 2, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 99 (next | show all)
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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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I returned from the City about three o'clock on that May afternoon pretty well disgusted with life.
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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 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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Penguin Australia

Four editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 0141182857, 0141441178, 0141031263, 0141194723

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