First serialised in Blackwood’s Magazine and then published in book form the same year (1915) this novel has never been out of print, and is probably the most famous thriller in the English language. Here is also the first time we meet the character Richard Hannay, who appeared in other novels by Buchan.
Hannay, who has been in Rhodesia is currently residing in London, but is thinking of returning to South Africa as he feels boredom set in. But soon this is all to change when a neighbour fakes his own death and stays with Hannay. This man is a spy and has a big tale to tell of the assassination of a leader and a war that will follow. Our hero believes him, especially when he is murdered in his flat and thus Hannay is the prime suspect for murder. Taking to his heels we follow Hannay as he travels to Scotland playing a cat and mouse game with the police, and German spies.
Always trying to stay one step ahead our hero has to decipher the meaning of the thirty nine steps. This is really a novel that needs no introduction as I expect most people have read it before, but if you have only seen the Hitchcock film version you will be in for a bit of a surprise, after all there is no hanging from the hand of Big Ben in this story.
From London to Scotland, then back to London and then Kent this is a prime piece of escapism despite some coincidences and helpful people always showing up at the right moment. Those who know all about this novel already will know this, but for those who are coming to this for the first time, or are unaware, the finale of this tale which takes place in a small town in Kent called Bradgate is really Broadstairs in the same county. Those who are familiar with the place will know the houses that have steps running to and from them, which is the inspiration for the title.
If you really think about this whilst you read it you will see that Buchan wrote something which just about stretches credulity but you tend to ignore this as you get so caught up in the tale. This was a device that Buchan himself readily admitted, and used the same formula of coincidences and helpful people at just the right time in other tales.
There is a plot spoiler in the following review.
Written in 1915 as he convalesced, The Thirty Nine Steps was the first of what John Buchan called his `shockers', or adventure stories.
Set in the months preceding the outbreak of the first world war, the novel introduces us to Buchan's enduring hero, Richard Hannay. Coming home one night he finds a mysterious man on his doorstep asking for his help. Being an adventurer and recognising someonein true need he lets him in. This leads to a whole series of adventures as the mysterious man is murdered and Hannay finds himself on the run from the murderers (who fear what he knows) and the police. Buchan then writes a brilliant story of a cat and mouse chase across the highlands of Scotland, as Hannay fights to remain free of capture by either side, and tries to work out just what is at the heart of it all. That particular mystery leads him to a deep plot that strikes at the very security of the county, breathtaking in its magnitude.
It's a classic piece, and we really get to know (and like) Hannay. OK, so a lot of the time he has extraordinary luck as well as his wits (a room the villains lock him in just happens to contain a handy store of torches and explosives...) but the adventure is so full of charm, and the stakes so high and the story so exciting that you can forgive its few shortcomings. It's a classic, no, THE classic adventure story of one man on the run fighting against all the odds. 4 sequels were to follow featuring Hannay, and many authors attempted to copy the style, but no one ever really matched the verve, vigour and excitement of the original. 5 stars all round.