Chad Bearden's Reviews > The Thirty-Nine Steps

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan
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Jun 15, 2010

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"The 39 Steps" is like literary cotton candy. Its cheap and easy and tangible when you acquire it, but has a funny habit of disolving before the process of consumption is even over with. But during that briefest moment when you're first taking it in, and for the few seconds afterwards when the aftertaste lingers, the sweetness is something easily savored, and might even bring you back for more.

The story goes that British soldiers fighting in the trenches during the Great World War loved Buchan's wisp of a novel, and its easy to understand why. In the midst of such stress and horror, the low-anxiety adventures of an everyman like Richard Hannay was a welcome respite. Sure, he was on the run and tangled up in an international conpsiracy and ducking evil henchmen at every turn. But any alleged danger was mere illusion. You could set your watch to the convenient arrivals of helpful townspeople, the sudden realizations by Mr. Hannay of various useful skills he learned in the Boer war that are perfect for whatever meddlesome situation he finds himself in, or the clockwork manner in which every single person he meets can apparently see into his soul and deem him trustworthy in the space of an eyeblink. The novel flies by thanks to Buchan's liberal use of these story-telling shortcuts, which somehow manage to be eye-rollingly silly, while also helping build an addictive momentum that keeps you hooked through the next chapter and the next and the next...

Its fun and sort of exotic to watch Hannay romp all over the Scottish countryside and through the streets of London. Its creepy to constantly be looking over his shoulder for that pesky bi-plane. Its absurd that the upper echelon of the British military would claim that only five people in the entire world know the details of their plans, then promptly spell the entire plan out to Hannay who basically just walked in off the street and has been wanted for murder for the last two weeks.

Its a dizzying whirlwind of action, nonsense, thrills, paranoia, and total ridiculousness. And its fun.

There are apparently five 'Richard Hannay' novels. I can't honestly say I have any great urge to read any of the others, but if were ever to stumble over one of the other four in a Half Price Books for 50 cents, I can see myself tossing it onto my stack and reading it on an airline flight or while I'm waiting in the trenches for the Germans to make their move across No-Mans-Land, hoping that maybe some of Richard Hannay's absurdly stupid luck will rub off on me.
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