The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

Way back in 2008 I watched The 39 Steps on TV with Rupert Penry-Jones as Richard Hannay, so inevitably as I read The Thirty-Nine Steps I could see Penry-Jones as Hannay. The dramatisation, however, although there are similarities, is different from John Buchan’s book. There are a number of historical inaccuracies and some artistic licence was used – none of which I was aware of as I watched the film and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It made me want to read the book and it’s taken me until now to get round to it – I’d forgotten most of the details of the film, except for visions of Penry-Jones running away from his pursuers in the Scottish moors, scrambling through the heather.

John Buchan 1936

John Buchan began writing The Thirty-Nine Steps in 1914; it was first published in 1916. He was born in Perth in 1875 and after leaving Oxford University he had a varied career, as well as writing books and articles he was a barrister, a member of Parliament, a soldier and a publisher. He was created Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsefield in 1935 and became the 15th Governor-General of Canada, a position he held until his death in 1940.

Once I began reading The Thirty-Nine Steps I didn’t want to put it down. It’s a fast moving action-story, beginning with an international conspiracy, involving anarchists, financiers and German spies. Richard Hannay, having found Scudder, murdered in his London flat, fears for his life and goes on the run, chased by villains in a series of exciting episodes, culminating in the discovery of the location of the ‘thirty-nine steps’. Hannay is a remarkable character, resourceful, and a master of disguise. As well as fleeing for his life he is searching for Scudder’s notebook, which contains clues to the international conspiracy – Scudder was a spy.

The master villain is also a master of disguise, having the ability to ‘hood his eyes like a hawk‘ :

There was something weird and devilish in those eyes, cold, malignant, unearthly, and most hellishly clever. They fascinated me like the bright eyes of a snake. (page 119)

He can impersonate the British First Sea Lord at a top secret meeting with people who knew the real First Sea Lord very well and is also convincing as the very British gentleman, the plump, bridge-player Percival Appleton.

The Thirty-Nine Steps is to my mind a gem. There are other Hannay books – the Complete series is available on Kindle, The Thirty-Nine Steps, Greenmantle, Mr. Standfast, The Three Hostages, and The Island of Sheep.

And so one book leads on to yet more books!

12 thoughts on “The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan”

  1. Hello Margaret I hope you are well – the 39 steps and Greenmantle are two of my all time favourite books – nice to be reminded of them

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  2. Thank you for the link to the Kindle edition – although I have some of them in print copies, I don’t have them all, and I was very pleased to get a companion collection of the Edward Leithen novels too. I do enjoy Buchan!

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  3. One of the really confusing things is that each of the films of this book has a completely different ending, so it depends which one you’ve seen how you react to the book, I think. Fortunately I came to the book first. I have to say that I don’t think the other books are anywhere near as good.

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  4. I mostly enjoyed this book, but I have to admit that the “master of disguise” stuff, especially impersonating the First Sea Lord really stretched my suspension of disbelief to breaking point. Like you I watched the TV adaptation before reading the book, and still like the TV version in spite of all the differences.

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  5. I remember seeing Robert Powell play Hannay (in the 80s?) and being quite smitten. That made me go and get some of the books from the library but I don’t remember much about them now. I know I enjoyed them very much though.

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  6. I believe that Buchan wasn’t all that happy with the book himself, but I enjoyed it too, although I think that Greenmantle is better. In the Hitchcock film of The 39 Steps he used the Forth Bridge in a dramatic scene which doesn’t appear in the book. I think Buchan missed a trick there as he lived in Kirkcaldy for many years, close to the Forth Bridge.

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  7. I’ve heard about the film but didn’t know it was an adaptation. I think I might enjoy the book more. Well done again Margaret, you’re doing well on What’s In A Name!

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