When 39-year-old John Buchan, recuperating from a duodenal ulcer, turned to writing (in a matter of weeks) a "shocker" or "dime novel" in the first months of the first world war, he was already the admired author of more than 10 works of fiction and spoken of in literary circles as a name to watch. Indeed, Buchan might quite plausibly have become a great Scots novelist following in the footsteps of Walter Scott and RL Stevenson. Instead, with ideal timing, he wrote another kind of classic,The Thirty-Nine Steps, an archetypal English spy thriller.
Long before the outbreak of war, the English reading public had become gripped by invasion fever. This was a volatile cocktail of jingoism and xenophobia inspired by the Anglo-German naval arms race and stoked by bestsellers such as The Great War in England in 1897 by William Le Queux and the infinitely greater 1903 classic The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers.
Buchan, who worked for the British War Propaganda Bureau, was well-versed in this Edwardian genre and the outbreak of war across the Channel became the perfect inspiration for a topical and thrilling tale of acute jeopardy involving British secrets, German spies and the sinister plotting of the Black Stone gang, a conspiracy hellbent on fomenting a vicious global conflict.
So far so (fairly) conventional. Buchan's contribution to this "dime novel" scenario was to create in his protagonist, Richard Hannay, an appealing antihero, both cool and brave, but also "pretty well disgusted with life" who, caught up in a high-octane international drama, has the resource, intelligence and daring to thwart a naked foreign attempt to drag Britain into war.
Hannay, who would feature in four more subsequent Buchan thrillers, is a mix of sleuth and action man, a cross between Sherlock Holmes and James Bond. His creator was obviously influenced by Conan Doyle (No 26 in this series) and would, in turn, later influence Graham Greene and Ian Fleming.
Buchan's other great contribution to this genre, which also owes something to Kidnapped (No 24 in this series) was to refine the "man on the run" yarn into a page-turning adventure. He knew exactly what he was doing, describing a "romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the border of the possible". None of this would have amounted to a hill of beans without Buchan's brisk characterisation, loving evocation of Scottish landscape and his switchblade prose. This is lethal, spare, clean and contemporary. When Hannay returns to his London flat after dinner in clubland, the reader can hardly escape the grip of Buchan's brilliant narration: "I snapped the switch, but there was nobody there. Then I saw something in the far corner which made me drop my cigar and fall into a cold sweat." Now read on.
A note on the text
The Thirty-Nine Steps, a brilliantly teasing and memorable title, was first published as a serial adventure story in Blackwood's Magazine from August to September 1915, appearing in book form that same October from the Scots publisher, William Blackwood & Sons, Edinburgh.
The book has never been out of print and has inspired many film and television adaptations: Alfred Hitchcock's liberty-taking 1935 version, starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll, a female character absent from the novel; a 1959 colour remake; a 1978 version, with Robert Powell as Hannay, that sticks rather more faithfully to Buchan's text than Hitchcock; and finally a 2008 British television version, starring Rupert Penry-Jones. There's also a long-running West End spoof abridgement, indicating the novel's enduring appeal.
Three more from John Buchan
Greenmantle (1916); Mr Standfast (1919); The Island of Sheep (1936).
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