The 39 Steps by John Buchan

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I’m having a bit of fun reading Victorian/Edwardian adventure stories at the moment, for a bit of light relief between the piles of academic tomes stacked up on my desk, waiting to form part of my MA dissertation. For those of you who haven’t ever read any H Rider Haggard, of King Solomon’s Mines fame, I can highly recommend Allan Quatermain, the sequel (though it is not necessary for you to have read King Solomon’s Mines to understand and enjoy it), which is of course horribly dated in many ways but is still a well paced, plotted and engaging novel that is a fascinating read when considering that this was the sort of stuff that fuelled the schoolboy generation who went off to war in 1914. A tale of a journey to a lost kingdom in the heart of Africa, its depiction of masculinity, bravery and duty are a real window into the moral values of a now disappeared generation. Though some of the sentiments appear either laughable or highly insensitive from our postcolonial and multicultural perspective, I think there is a danger in throwing out the baby with the bathwater when it comes to Victorian fiction, and failing to see the value beneath what can often appear an unforgivably antiquated surface. Anyway, I digress. Having put down Allan Quatermain, I wanted something similarly fast paced and not particularly intellectually demanding, and as I’ve had The 39 Steps sitting unread on my shelves for quite some time, I thought it was probably about time I gave it a go. I’m so glad I did – it was pure pleasure from the very first line!

Richard Hannay is a colonial settler, recently arrived back in ‘Blighty’ but finding life in London dull compared to the plains of his beloved Rhodesia. With few friends and a distaste for the shallow club-based life of city gentlemen, he has almost decided to go back to Africa when a knock on the door of his flat one evening turns all of his plans upside down. His neighbour, Franklin Scudder, begs Richard to hide him, and tells him that he is already a dead man. Richard is intrigued and invites him in, where it soon transpires that Scudder is involved in top secret spy shenanigans involving the planning going on between the European powers for the outbreak of war, and is being hunted by his enemies, a ring called the Black Stone. Scudder has faked his own death to avoid being captured, and a dead body lies in his flat upstairs as he speaks: he needs to lie low for a few days until he can get away and raise the alarm that Constantin Karolides, the Greek prime minister, will be murdered on his arrival in London for a summit the following month. Richard, who considers himself a man of the world, trusts Scudder and agrees to harbour him, though he doesn’t quite believe that everything is as bad as he is making out. However, when he returns home two days later to find Scudder dead on his living room floor with a knife in his heart, Richard realises he’s got himself caught up in something far more serious than he anticipated, and in order to save his own life, avenge Scudder, and prevent Karolides’ assassination, he decides to go on the run until he can get Scudder’s information to the people who need it.

Richard boards a train to Scotland, and from there the adventure begins. Running from place to place across the Scottish Highlands, dodging the spies and police following his tail and always managing to come across someone to help him just in the nick of time when things become dicey, Richard proves himself to be a man of ingenuity, resourcefulness, pluck and good old fashioned bulldog spirit. Nothing keeps him down: though he finds himself in a sticky wicket several times, his quick thinking, sense of duty and stiff upper lip always see him through. The coincidences might be laughable and the spy ring situation might remain rather vague, but the dialogue is so brilliant and the story so action packed that it really doesn’t matter. I raced through it in a day, giggling to myself at the quintessential Edwardian-ness of it, and I’m rather tempted to get started on the sequels. If you’re in the mood for some undemanding fun, then I can’t recommend this highly enough!

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22 comments

  1. I very much enjoyed this book too. I went with a literary tour group to Scotland and we visited the John Buchan Centre and met his daughter (granddaughter?) Lady Deborah and her husband, very charming. She signed books for us and then she hosted a lovely afternoon tea in the hotel nearby. I remember eating warm shortbread straight from the oven, dusted with sugar. The best I tasted in Scotland. A memorable afternoon!

  2. Thank you for the post on Buchan because his books are so great! I took a copy of Prester John with me when I was serving in Viet Nam. It helped get me through the madness of war.

  3. I second Mark’s comment! I so enjoyed Mr. Standfast & have read it about 3 times & am planning to re-read many of his others. I love his descriptions of Scotland, being a Scot myself, although I’ve lived in Australia since I was 8 yrs old. I recently finished Beau Geste & what you wrote about ” its depiction of masculinity, bravery and duty are a real window into the moral values of a now disappeared generation,” could be applied to that book also.

  4. I love this era of adventure story and yet, to my shame, I haven’t read anything by Buchan yet. He’s on my list for this year (a very helpful man for a Century of Books!) and I’m certain I’ll have as much fun reading him as you did. Also, I have to say how much I love the tagline on that poster: “the MAN who put the MAN in roMANce.” It is bizarre and wonderful.

    1. I know you’ll love The 39 Steps, Claire – it’s right up your street! I know – especially as there’s not actually any romance in the book!!

  5. Love ‘ The 39 Steps’ but also fell in love with that other dashing hero Bulldog Drummond (my favourite audio book read by Julian Rind Tutt.)

  6. I also loved reading “The 39 Steps”, found the film also great and actually went to see the stage production in London some years ago which was quite well done.

    Not to go too far off the subject but….I have been meaning to write to you for awhile – I read some of your book lists and was very interested in them. I also wanted to ask if you had ever read any of the Canadian authors’ Margaret Laurence? If not, judging from your lists I would have thought you would find them very enjoyable. “The Diviners” is a great saga and part of the Manawaka series of books she wrote. Great stuff.

    One of her books was also made into a film starring Joanne Woodward – in the 70’s (?) I think the one used was “Jest of God” or “Stone Angel” – my memory isn’t what it used to be. Anyway, if you don’t know her work do check it out.

    David

    1. David, the title of the film is actually Rachel Rachel. It is indeed based on A Jest of God, and it was directed and produced by Paul Newman in 1968. It was his first film as a director. Loved the book (I studied it with a Canadian teacher who had been “visiting” Rouen university in 1887, he was so nice, compared to our snooty French teachers !). Loved the book, loved the film.

    2. I’m really sad I missed that stage production, as I bet it was good fun! I’ve heard of Margaret Laurence but never read any of her books, to my shame – I am not well read in Canadian fiction at all. I shall check her out – thank you for the recommendation!

  7. I have been reading other John Buchan stories, and some of the historical ones are very haunting – like the Blanket of the Dark. (I think this is the one set at the time of Richard III); some are less successful but still well written adventures with a great understanding of life in wild terrain (Buchan was widely travelled). He has old fashioned values – none the worse for that – but his books are always interesting, both for their settings and insights into Buchan and his times too.

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