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The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan takes us back to Edwardian Britain on the eve of the First World War. An inexplicable murder drives the innocent Richard Hannay, on the run from a manhunt that never seems to end, to hide in remote Scottish moorland. Disguise and deception are his only weapons, as he struggles to decode the clues left by the murdered man to prevent the theft of naval secrets by an unfriendly foreign power. The story races along, making this novel one of the greatest short reads of twentieth-century literature. Its style is rapid, colloquial, and expertly handled. Buchan’s narrative voice has the easy authority of a government insider, with the smooth assurance of a man in the know. He was a born storyteller, his skills leading the reader to believe effortlessly everything that the narrative suggests. The publication of The Thirty-Nine Steps marked the birth of the modern thriller, and it is still one of the most satisfying adventure novels of the twentieth century. It rode the crest of a new wave in popular fiction and was a powerful influence on the development of the detective novel, the action romance, and the spy story.
John Buchan (1875–1940) was a polymath who lived in the Victorian, Edwardian, and Georgian eras, through the Boer War and the First World War. Buchan’s own family was of respectable but not wealthy farming stock from the Scottish Borders. His father was a minister of the Free Church of Scotland, and Buchan was the eldest of six siblings, becoming later a father of four, and a devoted son to a most trying mother. He studied at the University of Glasgow and at Oxford, and his writing style shows a clear reliance on the solid foundations of a Victorian Presbyterian manse upbringing and his classical education. His prose is beautifully balanced, steeped in the cadences of the Bible, Shakespeare, Horace, and Caesar, yet one never encounters the drone of the pedagogue. Also influencing his fiction writing were the novels of Robert Louis Stevenson, since he mixed their style and settings with the swift realism of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Grant Allen, and the theatrical daring of E. Phillips Oppenheim. As well as being a writer for more than forty-five years, Buchan was a civil servant, a journalist, a publisher, a war propagandist, a historian and biographer, a member of Parliament, and finally, in 1935, ennobled as Lord Tweedsmuir, he was appointed governor-general of Canada. His wife, Susan Grosvenor, was a cousin of the Duke of Westminster and connected with much of the landed aristocracy of the British establishment.
Convalescing in bed in a rented seaside house in August 1914, Buchan was frustrated and bored. War had just been declared, and at thirty-nine he was too old, and medically unfit, to join up. His political instincts were urging him to find out the latest intelligence. His job as a journalist and war historian was also demanding that he publish the latest news. But he was confined to bed, again, with the recurrent duodenal ulcer that debilitated his health for much of his life. Bored of reading “shockers”, the popular adventure stories of the day, this very experienced writer decided to write something better himself. Buchan was an expert creator of “atmosphere.” As a publisher and a journalist, he had trained himself to recognize what the public wanted, and what would sell. At the beginning of the First World War he was also becoming aware that a wartime readership would need more stories than ever to take their minds off the new horrors of war. In The Thirty-Nine Steps he used Mayfair and Westminster settings for top-level secret meetings and Intelligence gatherings, but at this stage in the war he had not yet had experience of these. He later became Britain’s Director of Intelligence, but his access to top-secret information at the beginning of the war was only that of a well-informed newspaperman. At the time that he wrote this novel Buchan was regularly reading wartime reports and government dossiers for his war history, Nelson’s History of the War (1915–1919), and for the weekly wartime magazine, The War, that his firm, the Scottish publishing house Thomas Nelson & Sons, had hastily put together in August 1914 to give employment to the staff now bereft of their foreign printing contracts. Buchan knew what was going on, and what had been going on, at high political levels, and transmuted this knowledge into a pre-war fiction as a might-have-been for the outbreak of this war. This was not the only time that Buchan wove fact and history into a best-selling novel: the sequel to The Thirty-Nine Steps, Greenmantle (1916) uses the same fluidity of verisimilitude to lightly cover pure invention with a suggestion of fact.
Buchan thus created his most famous character, Richard Hannay, almost by accident. He had been working towards the invention of such a determined personality in earlier stories, but Hannay leapt into life in The Thirty-Nine Steps with such confident energy that he was clearly destined to be the man for this hour. An ex-patriate Scot with a South-African accent, Hannay is a mining engineer looking for fun on holiday in the “home country,” and finds nothing but trouble. He is asked to shelter a neighbor for a few days, and comes home one evening to find the man dead in his drawing room. The police chase is inevitable, but Hannay is dogged by a mysterious second set of pursuers, who want something unknown from him. Buchan’s speciality feature of chases through a hostile landscape is played again and again, as Hannay repeatedly evades capture, finds respite, and is on the run again, in a loop-tape of perpetual panic and thinking on his feet. The chases don’t stop even when Hannay is taken under the wing of the British government and the police are called off. One of Buchan’s most spectacular short, sharp sprints takes Hannay into the heart of Establishment London, hurtling through St James’ Park with a pack of baying young men about town after him. But even this chase has its purpose: it brings Hannay to the right house, at the right time, to spot the enemy, and to realize that the enemy has spotted him. This time Hannay turns hunter, and the final showdown is only a few, feverishly turned pages away.
The Thirty-Nine Steps was a best seller at the time, and has never been out of print. On its first publication, as a serial story, the sales of those issues of Blackwood’s Magazine would have shown that this story could fly out of the door equally fast on its own merits, and it was published as a novel three months later. Reviewed enthusiastically and with gusto, it seems to have attained classic, rather than fashionable, status straight away, for in subsequent reviews of Buchan’s later novels, The Thirty-Nine Steps is barely mentioned, whereas its immediate sequel, Greenmantle, is more frequently cited. But, unlike Greenmantle, The Thirty-Nine Steps has remained on school curricula and in the fond memories of British readers for generations.
The success of The Thirty-Nine Steps changed Buchan’s career. He had been a relatively successful but not a particularly well-known author since 1895. The Thirty-Nine Steps was his seventeenth book, and his ninth full-length work of fiction. But its success marked a change in the pattern of Buchan’s publishing, from predominantly short-story collections and republished journalism, to a steady sequence of one novel each year, interspersed with a history, a biography, or a book of essays. There were four Hannay sequels (Greenmantle, Mr Standfast in 1919, The Three Hostages in 1923, and The Island of Sheep [The Man in the Norlands in the USA] in 1936). These and the spin-off stories set in the Hannay, Leithen, and McCunn worlds, all explored the possibilities of desperate adventure set against interwar politics. Buchan also wrote historical fiction, in which he produced his most critically acclaimed work. Witch Wood (1927). Buchan is universally regarded as the inventor of the modern spy thriller, but his dabblings in detective fiction, the novel of Empire and the political thriller have made him influential in those other genres. Elements from Buchan were reused, rather than copying whole plots or characters, and scenes from his fiction appear as hommages in modern spy and adventure fiction. Grahame Greene, Eric Ambler, and Geoffrey Household acknowledged Buchan’s influence on their writing, and he was emulated by the equally successful “Sapper” and Valentine Williams. The Buchan thriller style was generic by the mid-1930s, leading to some satirical treatment by Nancy Mitford, J. B. Morton (“Beachcomber”) and John Betjeman. The Thirty-Nine Steps is not, however, the book of the Alfred Hitchcock films. It is the novel that Hitchcock loved, but could only film by changing its story almost beyond recognition.
Buchan’s moral and religious upbringing was a very powerful influence on his fiction. The Thirty-Nine Steps is probably the lightest and most quickly read of all of his novels, yet even it has an identifiable concern with exegesis (the decoding of a cryptic text), and a sense that a Calvinistic struggle is necessary before revelation. Buchan’s principal theme in his fiction was the thinness of the line between civilized values and chaos. His best work explores the tensions holding that line, and the horror of the devastating consequences if that line should break. The Thirty-Nine Steps shows this as well, by being a pre-war novel written in the midst of war. The full horrors of modern trench warfare were not yet understood when The Thirty-Nine Steps came out, nor the misery of the war of attrition. But the novel’s original readers would have experienced the terrifying sense of political chaos and looming doom that the novel’s plot had endeavored to suggest, and in that sense The Thirty-Nine Steps is a novel from Revelation, as well as of revelation.
Buchan was contemporary with the great writers active at the turn of the century: Willa Cather, Joseph Conrad, Henry James, Rudyard Kipling, and Edith Wharton. He was also publishing at the same time as the younger generation of British writers who came to prominence during the war: Ford Madox Ford, D. H. Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, Siegfried Sassoon, H. G. Wells, and Rebecca West. Modernism flourished throughout Buchan’s career, but he was a traditionalist, not a modernist. Thus he can be seen as part of a parallel stream of writers who were highly successful, in popular commercial fiction, but who were denied critical approval or literary eminence: Grant Allen, Arnold Bennett, Erskine Childers, Marie Corelli, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Bret Harte, Anthony Hope, Baroness Orczy, Ouida, Saki, and Dornford Yates. Buchan straddled many dividing lines that were later applied to British fiction of the first half of the twentieth century. He wrote thrillers and wartime adventures very well indeed, but he was also an Imperialist. whose plots encompassed more than the hero versus the enemy, depicting the values of the British Empire versus the chaos spreading out of post-war revolution and anarchy. He had serious political concerns that were expressed in a popular medium, but from a profoundly literary basis.
Considering The Thirty-Nine Steps as a representative of the archetypal spy thriller and of the novel prophesying war, Buchan was drawing on the well-entrenched anti-German feeling in British popular culture that had been prevalent in the popular press and other “low” forms of cultural life for more than fifteen years. The widespread expectation was that Germany would invade the English east coast in force. In The Thirty-Nine Steps, the theft of the French naval plans, and thus the neutralization of Allied naval power, by Buchan’s German gang was a clear reference to this cultural assumption. The emphasis in the story on naval power may seem strangely one-sided to today’s readers who hear far more about military action in the air or on land than anything happening at sea. It is also a historical reminder: until the middle of the First World War there was no military air power of any importance, on any side. Although soldiers in battle, or in trenches, form the classic image of the First World War in popular understanding now, there was a good reason for calling the British Navy the “Senior Service”: the navy was and had been the dominant British military force for centuries. The bulk of the fiction dealing with British military action up to the First World War in The Strand Magazine, for example, concerns heroic deeds at sea by sailors, even in the context of the Boer War (1899–1901), which was a landlocked conflict.
The Thirty-Nine Steps can also be seen as an example of the fractured pastoral, a novel of lyrical descriptions of landscape that function as pacemakers for the fast-moving plot. Episodes of stillness and contemplation are interspersed with rapid and tense scenes of action. The contrast between the two gives them power, and the splitting of the energies between meditation and intense activity, mental or physical, engenders a corresponding dynamic in the energy of the story. The pastoral idyll is shattered by action, as would a fracture in the civilized world. The stranger in the familiar land is also an unsettling device that Buchan used to make a point about the familiar being strange, and threatening, if one is on the wrong side. The chase by a faceless enemy is a long-established trope in adventure fiction, but can also be seen here as a technique borrowed from modernism. Making things new was what modernists at this period were doing, and Buchan was re-presenting his own countryside as hostile. Buchan’s twist was to allow the readers to associate themselves closely with the hero, Richard Hannay, and then be chased in their own, familiar land (he expected his readers to be predominantly British) by a terrifying double pursuit of the known (the police) and the unknown, murderous gang.
The Thirty-Nine Steps, as well as being Buchan’s most famous novel, is also his most notorious. By writing the dialogue of his characters in the idioms of the day, reflecting the vocabulary, speech patterns, and attitudes and assumptions of his contemporaries and his readers, Buchan also exposes to later readers the anti-Semitic attitudes of Edwardian Britain. This is not to say that the novel is riddled with anti-Semitic sneers: it is largely neutral to all beliefs and cultures, even the German enemy. But there is a single phrase, in the first chapter, used by the character about to be murdered, the American spy Franklin P. Scudder, that has damned the novel as a statement of Buchan’s apparent anti-Semitic beliefs: “a little white-faced Jew in a bath-chair with an eye like a rattlesnake.” This phrase has been read by millions, who may never have gone on to finish the chapter, or the book, or even read anything else written by Buchan, and it has influenced public opinion so profoundly that the two most likely things that the average reader will know about John Buchan is that he wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps and that he was an anti-Semite. Those who have read the novel will of course be aware that the author did not say those words, that he gave them, for good reasons, to a fictional character in a far-fetched fictional thriller. Those who look for more assurance that Buchan was not just repeating his own prejudices will observe that Scudder’s sneers were not believed by the narrative voice, Richard Hannay (the character most likely to reflect Buchan’s own opinions). A second authoritative character, Sir Walter Bullivant, Hannay’s “M,” gives the final word on Scudder as being a fantasist and “too romantic. He had the artistic temperament, and wanted a story to be better than God meant it to be. He had a lot of odd biases, too. Jews, for example, made him see red. Jews and the high finance.” Buchan took a lot of trouble to separate himself from Scudder’s offensive remarks, but he was also assuming that his readers would know his, and their, own society, and understand the context. Later readers, and many later critics who ought to have known better, have failed to recognize context in their interpretation of this phrase, and of Buchan’s motivations, and have slung mud where it was not deserved.
The Thirty-Nine Steps is one of the greats. It may be almost a century old, but it feels colloquial, and the storytelling is so perfectly handled that it is unnoticeable. Buchan’s superb descriptions of landscape and action balance the tension in the story with the poetry of the chase. His verisimilitude blends in with his invention to convince the reader to swallow the whole story. The Thirty-Nine Steps is also the birth of Buchan’s most famous character, Richard Hannay, who spends most of the action running through hostile landscapes. This perpetual pursuit is a metaphor for the novel’s background, as novel prophesying war, and for Buchan’s serious political concerns, which he managed to express in a popular medium, but with a profoundly literary foundation. His abiding concern for the thinness of the line between civilized values and chaos is also reflected in the novel’s exposure to later readers of the anti-Semitic attitudes of Edwardian Britain. The Thirty-Nine Steps has serious underpinnings, but Buchan’s attention is always on the story, and on the lyrical descriptions of landscape that function as pacemakers for the fast-moving plot, which continues to captivate readers today.
Kate Macdonald teaches British literature and cultural history at the University of Ghent, Belgium. She is the author of John Buchan: A Companion to the Mystery Fiction (McFarland & Co, 2008).