Werner's Reviews > The 39 Steps

The 39 Steps by John Buchan
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Mar 09, 10

bookshelves: adventure-fiction, classics, espionage
Recommended for: Fans of adventure stories; fans of espionage/intrigue-type plots
Read in October, 2009, read count: 1

The above description (which I wrote --it didn't have one before, only an unilluminating, seemingly random quotation from the book) gives you a one-sentence idea of the type of book this is, and the setting/milieu. Like his protagonist, Richard Hannay (who appears in other Buchan works as well), the author had spent considerable time in southern Africa, and led an adventurous life. Novels of espionage in 1915 were in their infancy; but the outbreak of World War I, and the climate of intrigue that led up to it, undoubtedly inspired such a tale and lent a creditable context for it. Buchan definitely influenced later practitioners of the genre (which is why not all of his plot devices strike the reader as freshly as they would have in 1915).

Lately returned to England from Africa, and at loose ends, Hannay is appealed to for help and shelter by a fellow lodger, an American ex- journalist who fears for his life, and who spins a tale of an impending assassination of a Balkan political figure which will plunge Europe into war. (Sound familiar? :-)) When the fellow's dead body turns up in Hannay's living room. pinned to the floor by a knife, our hero is forced to flee both from the killers and from the police, who suspect him of the murder. But the victim (whose notebook, written in cipher, is now in Hannay's possession) was lucky in his choice of an ally; a former Boer War intelligence officer and veteran of other African adventures, he's a man with considerable pluck and savvy, and resolved to foil the nefarious plot. But can he? This tale of escape and pursuit, disguises and codes, danger and duplicity will answer that question. :-)

Buchan's characterizations aren't deep here, nor his writing profound philosophically; the book doesn't purport to be anything but a really good, rousing adventure yarn. But it is that. The short length precludes much development of plot, characters, settings, atmosphere, etc; but it does guarantee a quick narrative pace that precludes any boredom. Hannay is really inventive in getting out of his various jeopardies, and the reader easily roots for him. One Goodreads reviewer complained of problems of credibility in virtually all of the plot. In a few places, Buchan does resort to coincidence with more convenience than the laws of probability would probably justify (though not to the degree that his contemporary, Edgar Rice Burroughs, often did.) In the main, though, I didn't find credibility a big problem. I think the other reviewer probably felt the readiness of characters in the book to confide, at times, in total strangers was unrealistic, but I didn't --in the first place, the despair of a life-and-death situation makes anybody pretty willing to grab at a straw; but more importantly, this was written in 1915, in a world that cynical moderns usually can't begin to comprehend. Men of the stamp of Hannay and other characters actually were socialized to hold ideals of patriotism, duty and responsibility, decency and fair play; they took it for granted (and could safely take it for granted) that these were the kinds of attitudes "gentlemen" could be expected to not only believe in, but act on if necessary. (The same goes for the automatic extension of hospitality by Highlanders to strangers, without desire for payment, in 1915 --though I doubt if a similar degree of generosity would be as apt to be shown today.) And the psychology of the climactic hurdle near the end actually rang perfectly true for me.

For the most part, I didn't have a problem with the early 20th-century British colloquial vocabulary; even if I didn't understand some terms, I could usually get a rough idea of what was meant from the context. My biggest complaint --and it wasn't very noticeable here, but cropped up occasionally-- was the ignorant and unconscious racism implied in the use of a phrase like "You're a white man" as a compliment, and the ethnic prejudice that can refer to a Greek as a "Dago" and that lurks in some of the characters' comments about Jews. But in this respect Buchan's characters (and probably Buchan) were children of their time.
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Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

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message 1: by Steve (new)

Steve Werner, have you read Riddle of the Sands? I'm not really recommeding it, at least not yet. I read it about a year ago, and it read kind of flat, but while reading your review, it reminded me a bit of the need to remember the context. Anyway, fine review.

Werner Thanks, Steve! No, I haven't read Riddle of the Sands, but I've heard of it. When I read through some of the backlog of things on my to-read list already, I might give it a try; it does sound like it fits nicely into the same fictional and historical context as Buchan's book.

message 3: by Joy H. (last edited Mar 27, 2011 11:05AM) (new)

Joy H. Hi Werner,
Why does the GR description say that the book was "first published 1994" when other sources like Wiki put the date at 1915?

BTW, Today, 3/27/11, PBS is airing the BBC version of the film based on the novel. Here's the PBS announcement page:

I enjoyed the Hitchcock version and gave it 4 Netflix stars out of 5.

PS-Here's the Wiki page for the book:

Werner Joy, good question. It said that (past tense --I corrected the description just now!) because the reprint edition probably first came out in 1994, and whoever wrote the Goodreads description apparently didn't understand what "original publication date" means. :-) Thanks for catching that mistake --I'm surprised that I didn't!

message 5: by Joy H. (last edited Mar 27, 2011 05:57PM) (new)

Joy H. Werner, thank you for making the correction. I first saw the 1915 date at a Netflix review of the 1959 version of the film. Evidently there were 3 different adaptations of the book: 1935 (Hitchcock), 1959, and 2008 (BBC).

PS-Oops! And there was a 4th film adaptation in 1978!

message 6: by Joy H. (last edited Mar 27, 2011 06:01PM) (new)

Joy H. PPS-Werner, I thought you might be interested in the following from Wiki about how the title of the book originated:
"Buchan's son, William, later wrote that the name of the book originated when the author's daughter, then about age six, was counting the stairs at a private nursing home in Broadstairs, where Buchan was convalescing. 'There was a wooden staircase leading down to the beach. My sister, who was about six, and who had just learnt to count properly, went down them and gleefully announced: there are 39 steps.' Some time later the house was demolished and a section of the stairs, complete with a brass plaque, was sent to Buchan."
FROM: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Thir...
Title origins are often very interesting.

Werner Yes, Joy, they are! Thanks for that info, and the links. Sorry I'm so late in responding to this; my home computer's still in the shop, and I'm way behind on my updates.

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