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!

The Steel Bonnets by George MacDonald Fraser

The Steel Bonnets 001The full title of this book is The Steel Bonnets: the Story of the Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers by George MacDonald Fraser. It’s a detailed account of the Border between England and Scotland up to the accession of James VI’s succession to the English throne in 1603.

The people living in the Borders, both English and Scottish feuded amongst themselves, Scots against Scots, English against English, and Scots against English – robbery, blackmail, raiding, arson, kidnapping, murder and extortion were regular events during that period, amongst a number of families, including Armstrongs, Johnstones, Forsters and Hetheringtons, Elliots, Fenwicks, Bells and Nixons, Littles and Scotts, Maxwells and Kerrs. Some families had both English and Scottish members, making it all very confusing. Fraser searched many sources in compiling this history, including State and Border papers and letters, listed in the Bibliography.

There is a map showing the six Marches that made up the Border – three on each side, East, Middle and West. Each March had its own Warden. It’s not very easy to see on my copy of this map, but it shows the general locations:

Border Marches map

The seamen of the first Elizabeth might sweep the world’s greatest fleet off the seas, but for all the protection she could give to her Northumbrian peasants they might as well have been in Africa. While young Shakespeare wrote his plays, and the monarchs of England and Scotland ruled the comparatively secure hearts of their kingdoms, the narrow hill land between was dominated by the lance and the sword. The tribal leaders from their towers, the broken men and outlaws of the mosses, the ordinary peasants of the valleys, in their own phrase, “Shook loose the Border.” They continued to shake it as long as it was a political reality, practising systematic robbery and destruction on each other. History has christened them the Border Reivers.*

*Reiver, reaver – robber, raider, marauder, plunderer. the term is obsolete, but lingers on in words like bereave. (page 3)

The book is divided into five parts:

  • Part I a brief historical sketch up to 1500 from the Roman period.
  • Part II describing what the Border was like in that century, the people who lived there, who were the leading robber families, how they lived, ate, dressed, built their homes, the games they played (football, the fore-runner of rugby, soccer and American football, horse racing, hawking, hunting, fishing and gambling), and the songs they sang – Border ballads.
  • Part III – about the reivers, how they rode their raids, conducted their feuds etc and the Border Law, and how the March Wardens tried to keep order, what it was like for ordinary folk living in the frontier country.
  • Part IV – historical survey of the reiving century from 1503 – 1603, how the reivers fitted into the history of their time and the part they played in the long-drawn Anglo- Scottish struggle..
  • Part V – how their story ended when England and Scotland came under one king, and the old Border ceased to be.

James became the King of all Britain in 1603:

… he was determined to make one country where there had been two before, to bury the old quarrels, and to keep the peace. (page 360)

Fraser makes the point that whilst James pacified the Borders using a

‘heavy hand and it makes an ugly story’, … ‘at the end of the day he left the old, wild, bloody Border a fit place for ordinary folk to live. If the border riders were harshly dealt with, it is not irrelevant to point out that they had dealt fairly harshly in their time. Undoubtedly injustice and atrocity took place in settling the frontier, but the victims are not to be accounted any nobler just because of that.

It is also wrong to suggest that James was ignorant of Border conditions. He knew a great deal about them, from first-hand experience – certainly more than any occupant of the English throne since Richard III. He may be charged with cruelty, indifference and dishonesty in his attitude to Border affairs, but not with ignorance or stupidity. (pages 360 -361)

It’s taken me since the beginning of December to read this book. I read it slowly in small sections as there is a lot to take in and I found the structure of the book a bit confusing and disjointed, as inevitably it meant that information was repeated. There are a large number of footnotes, which interrupted the flow of the text if I paused to read them – which I did, as they contained much relevant information. I would have preferred it to have been incorporated into the main body of the book.

However, I’m glad I read it – it’s a tour de force, and a mine of information! An ideal book for Read Scotland 2014 if you are interested in the history of the region and/or the families, or like me, you live there.

George MacDonald Fraser (1925 – 2008) was a Scot born in England (Carlisle), a Borderer himself. In 1943 he enlisted in The Border Regiment and served in the Burma Campaign. He was later granted a commission into the Gordon Highlanders. After the War he became a journalist. He was the author of the ‘Flashman‘ books, other novels and movie scripts.

The Hangman's Song by James Oswald

The Hangman’s Song by James Oswald is the third in his Inspector McLean series set in Edinburgh.

DI McClean, seconded to the Sexual Crimes Unit (SCU) by Acting Superintendent Charles Duguid (nicknamed Dagwood) finds himself working on two separate cases – one for the SCU  investigating a group of prostitutes and the subsequent death of their pimp, Malky Jennings, who was beaten to death – and the second, two suicides, which he and his DC, MacBride consider to be suspicious, and continue to investigate against Duguid’s instructions.

I think you need to have read the first two books in the series to fully understand the background or at least have read their synopses, as I found some elements of this book confusing – a small example being the name of the Acting Superintendent and his nickname, as it is not clear that Duguid and Dagwood are one and the same person. At times both names were used within a few paragraphs, making me think they could be two people.

The Hangman’s Song is a dark, tense book; crime fiction with elements of the supernatural  and parapsychology thrown in. The police force is undergoing great change as it prepares for unification as Police Scotland, adding to McLean’s own difficulties with his colleagues, most of whom dislike him, regarding him as a pain in the arse and a troublemaker. He views them as incompetent, lazy and in some cases corrupt. I did get a bit tired of his constant battle with Duguid, which detracted from the story at times. All is not well in McLean’s private life either. His girlfriend Emma (who was nearly killed in the previous book, The Book of Souls) comes out of a coma, but she has lost most of her memory, regressing to an eight-year old. She moves into McLean’s house to help with her recovery.

It is a complicated book with three storylines to keep in mind, and a large cast of characters, not all of them clearly distinguishable. It’s not a book for the faint-hearted or the squeamish as there are details of some gruesome deaths, murders and beatings that the characters go through. At times I had to read with my imagination turned down – a bit like watching something gory on TV from behind my fingers.

Having said that, it was still a compelling, if disturbing, book (particularly the last chapter) that kept me turning the pages to find out what happened next.

James Oswald runs a 350 acre livestock farm in north-east Fife. In addition to his DI McClean books he has also written a fantasy series, The Ballad of Sir Benfro, set in Wales. I have the first book in the series, Dreamwalker, which I have yet to read.

Thanks to for the uncorrected advance proof of this book for review. The published book will be available in February 2014.

First Chapter: The Observations

First chapterEvery Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where you can share the first paragraph or (a few) of a book you are reading or thinking about reading soon.

My choice this week is a book I’ll be reading soon. It’s The Observations by Jane Harris and Chapter 1 ‘I Find a New Place‘ begins:

I had reason to leave Glasgow, this would have been about three or four years ago, and I had been on the Great Road about five hours when I seen a track to the left and a sign that said ‘Castle Haivers’. Now there’s a coincidence I thought to myself, because here I was on my way across Scratchland to have a look at Edinburgh castle and perhaps get a job there and who knows marry a young nobleman or prince. I was only 15 with a head full of sugar and I had a notion to work in a grand establishment.

Jane Harris was born in Belfast and grew up in Scotland before moving to England in her 20s.  The Observations, her first book is set in Scotland in 1863. It was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2007 and the Prix du Premier Roman Etranger in 2009. Her second novel Gillespie and I, which I read just over two years ago, was shortlisted for the National Book Awards in 2011 and the Scottish Book Awards in 2012.

I enjoyed Gillespie and I, a book that lingered in my mind long after I’d finished reading it, so I’m hoping I’ll have a similar reaction to this book.

Read Scotland 2014

This year I’m taking part in Peggy Ann’s Read Scotland 2014 challenge. She has compiled this helpful list of writers:

As I’m trying to read mainly from my own books this year I’ve searched my shelves and found I already have books by these authors to fit the bill of books written by a Scottish author (by birth or immigration) or about or set in Scotland. These are a mix of fiction and non-fiction writers. I have a feeling this is not an exhaustive list. I may have more, as I hadn’t realised the Scottish connections until I started looking – I don’t usually take any notice of an author’s nationality etc when deciding what to read!

  1. John Allen
  2. Kate Atkinson
  3. R M Ballantyne
  4. Iain Banks
  5. William Barclay
  6. Chris Brookmyre
  7. John Buchan
  8. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  9. A J Cronin
  10. Barbara Erskine
  11. Neil M Gunn
  12. Jane Harris
  13. James Hogg
  14. Michael Innes
  15. Ed James
  16. Philip Kerr
  17. Leanda de Lisle
  18. Alexander McCall Smith
  19. Neil MacGregor
  20. S G MacLean
  21. Sinclair Macleod
  22. Mark MacNicol
  23. Iain Macwhirter
  24. Allan Massie
  25. Neil Oliver
  26. James Oswald
  27. Stef Penney
  28. John Prebble
  29. Ian Rankin
  30. Sir Walter Scott
  31. Tobias Smollett
  32. R L Stevenson
  33. Iain Stewart
  34. Mary Stewart
  35. Dorothy Wordsworth

Read Scotland 2014

Read ScotlandIt had to happen. As soon as I think I’ll cut down on taking part in challenges one crops up that interests me. It’s Peggy Ann’s Challenge, Read Scotland 2014.

The title says it all really, read and review Scottish books -any genre, any form- written by a Scottish author (by birth or immigration) or about or set in Scotland. There are 4 levels:

Just A Keek (a little look): 1-4 books read
The Highlander: 5-8 books
The Hebridean: 9-12 books
Ben Nevis: 13+ books

I have more than enough books by Scottish authors sitting waiting to be read to go for the Hebridean level, if not the Ben Nevis level – and this will fit in very well with the 2014 Mount TBR Reading Challenge too. Actually I’m thinking of this as a sub-challenge within the TBR Challenge, so I’m not adding to the number of challenges for next year 🙂

To sign up go to Peggy Ann’s blog, Peggy Ann’s Post.