Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Rosy's scrawled book recommendation: The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

The Thirty-Nine Steps
John Buchan

'I snapped the switch, but there was nobody there. Then I saw something in the far corner which made me drop my cigar and fall into a cold sweat.' 

When Richard Hannay is warned of an assassination plot that has the potential to take Britain into a war, and then a few days later discovers the murdered body of the American that warned him in his flat, he becomes a prime suspect. He flees to the moors of Scotland and a spirited chase begins as he is pursued by the police and the German spies involved with stealing British plans. 

Buchan's tale unfolds into one of the seminal and most influential 'chase' books, mimicked by many, yet unrivalled in the tension and mystery created by his writing. Buchan reveres Hannay as an ordinary man who puts his country's good before his own and the classic themes of the novel influenced many films and subsequent 'man-on-the-run' novels.

William Blackwood & Sons


Rosy's scrawlings on The Thirty-Nine Steps
Published in 1915, The Thirty-Nine Steps is an essential spy adventure read. It was influential in the creation of the James Bond character and adapted by Alfred Hitchcock to film, amongst many other adaptations. The most influential aspects of the story is the overland chase that has Richard Hannay donning disguises with the ease of Sherlock Holmes and tackling new landscapes with a boldness that became Bond's. There are borders in The Thirty-Nine Steps but they mean more to the spies and those defending their country than Richard Hannay as he endeavours to escape the clutches of three German spies.
The story is set before the advent of WWI. With the introduction of the spy Scudder, a man in the know and on the run, we are thrown into the politics at play before WWI erupted. At first the information Scudder provides is rather anti-Semitic and sounds like a the conspiracy theory of a raving loon. Soon enough though, the information is updated to one of an assassination plot and a war at sea between Germany and Britain, one that had been building up with the arms race at sea between these two nations. Some facts and some fiction are thrown together to form this tightly woven spy novel but the best is in the Richard Hannay's escape from a murder charge and the band of German spies.
Richard Hannay goes through events that remind you of the North by North-West plane scene, of Bond going quietly out to sea in a rowboat or motorboat, of Sherlock meticulously affecting a disguise and of the real art of acting to convince others you aren't yourself but someone else. He's not a man originally a spy but by the end of his tale he shows a distinct knack for it.
The Thirty-Nine Steps is a quick and clever read. The writing can feel lengthy at times but that pace never changes. There's much good fortune, some rather unbelievable while others quite convincing, that tells of Buchan having to forcefully invent ways for Hannay to survive but none will irritate you so much as have you drop the book. There is high adventure and a psychologically tense closing scene, which in itself reveals exactly why Hitchcock would have been interested in making a film based on the story. The Thirty-Nine Steps is well worth a read for many reasons but mostly for the fun of the tale and the influence it has had upon all spy stories since.

I'd recommend this book to: those who love spy novels, war stories and overland chase adventures. Also those who love James Bond stories.

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