Emily May's Reviews > The Thirty-Nine Steps

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan
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Aug 18, 12

bookshelves: classics, mystery-thriller-horror, 2012, boring
Recommended to Emily May by: 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die
Read from August 17 to 18, 2012

I am currently working my way through the list of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die and decided to read Buchan's short mystery/spy novel because it seemed like a quick and easy option to take me a step closer to maybe one day completing the list. I never imagined it would be such a painfully boring slog.

Some books made the big list because they are actually good, some because they are (or were) scandalous, some because they are so far away from pretty much everything else that's been written, and some because they kick-started something or opened up a new type of genre and/or storytelling. I believe The Thirty-Nine Steps falls into this last category. It arguably introduced the world to the "spy" genre and has resulted in many attempted imitations over the years since its publication in 1915. But in terms of plot, writing and characters it just seems to me to have very little to offer. It may be one of the first of its kind, but many other authors have bettered the genre, in my opinion. I would use John le Carré as a prime example.

The novel begins with the bored Richard Hannay who is determined to give London just one more day to hold his interest before he leaves for a more exciting alternative abroad. Richard, however, gets way more than he bargained for when a new American acquaintance is murdered in Hannay's flat just a few days after the pair meet. Realising he is now likely the main target of the group who assassinated his new friend, and realising he will be the police force's main suspect for the murder, Richard takes off on the run around Scotland.

Richard is given very little characterization or development, he has no personality and the novel focuses on what happens to him, instead of who he is, why he acts in a particular way, or what he cares about - apart from the desire to avoid capture by the police or the assassins. Though he is being chased by two groups who either want to kill him or lock him up, I got no sense of his fear, desperation or urgency. The novel lacked emotion and I felt like I could be reading a cold, uncaring police report of events, rather than a first-hand account of them. This whole mess seemed like a little inconvenience in Richard Hannay's life, not something that was a real danger to him.

Most of all, it was boring. The conclusion wasn't satisfying enough to be worth putting up with the sequence of boring events for. I think this review says a lot about the novel's plot: "He runs around in the fields. A lot. He hides in this field. He hides in that field. Some shadowy figures close in, and off he goes, running again." An excellent and accurate summary, in my opinion.
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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by s.penkevich (new)

s.penkevich I always wondered why this book got such high praise as well, aside from being a forerunner of the genre. Hitchcock's film of it was pretty awesome, but this was a dry book. Good review!


Sean Nice review. I agree, this gets way more credit than it deserves. I found buchans writing still to be the most frustrating part. It certainly hasn't aged well.


message 3: by Greg (new)

Greg I find this problem in a lot of early examples of genre novels, they might have been really influential but they don't read well any longer.


message 4: by Sudhakar (new)

Sudhakar I really wanted to read this. I'll stick to the film I think.


message 5: by Cris (new) - rated it 1 star

Cris Cezar I agree about the ending. I randomly picked up this book and just started reading. By the 9th chapter, I was expecting this HUGE reveal where everything would click and I'd think "brilliant, simply brilliant.". But no. Got none of that. Very sad.


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