The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

I’ve been meaning to read John Buchan’s Thirty-Nine Steps for some years, having seen both the 1935 Hitchcock film (Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll handcuffed together and on the run) and the 1978 film (Robert Powell hanging off the minute-hand of Big Ben) multiple times. (And I recently caught the second half of the 2008 BBC adaptation. Lydia Leonard rubs mustard into Rupert Penry-Jones’s muscly back. Not a scene from the novel.) Even more so when I read somewhere that the meaning of “the thirty-nine steps” is different in the novel than either film. It turns out to be a quite short book, and an interesting glimpse into the origins of the sort of spy-thriller that would come to be one of the defining genres of 20th century fiction.

Supposedly, Buchan decided to write The Thirty-Nine Steps when, finding himself ill in bed and having run out of the sort of “shocker” that provided the best convalescent reading — a “romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible”, as he puts it in his dedication — he went ahead and wrote one himself. (Buchan was a writing powerhouse, producing a stream of novels, short stories, journalism and non-fiction books throughout a life already busy with a legal and political career that eventually saw him installed as Governor General of Canada. He paid for his own further education at Oxford by supplementing a scholarship with income from an already established writing career, but only ever regarded writing as a sideline.) The result was serialised in Blackwood’s Magazine between August and September 1915, then published in hardback in October the same year.

The set-up is basically the same in novel and films. Richard Hannay, having made a fortune as a mining engineer in Africa (though I think he’s Canadian in the Hitchcock film), comes back to England to live a life of leisure, but quickly becomes bored. Just when he’s thinking of returning to Africa, excitement comes knocking in the form of Scudder, an American who has for some time been working to crack the details of a covert plot that will lead Europe, and perhaps the whole of the world, into war — a war deliberately planned by a vague and undefined group of foreign agents. (In the Hitchcock film, the Scudder role is provided by a mysterious woman played by Lucie Mannheim. In the 1978 film, Scudder is a retired British intelligence officer played by John Mills.) Scudder has almost got all the details, and knows that the plan hinges on the visit of Karolides, the Greek Premier, to Britain, where he will be assassinated. Scudder needs to live until then so he can warn the authorities, but of course he’s murdered almost straightaway, leaving Hannay not only the one person who knows what’s going on, but also the only suspect in Scudder’s murder, meaning he can’t just turn to the police. He decides the best thing to do is go on the run till nearer the date of Karolides’ visit, then come back and — when he’s understood the contents of Scudder’s coded notebook — prevent the assassination and foil the villains’ plan. He fixes on Scotland as the place to hide, and sets out on a train for the Highlands.

For most of what follows, there’s really no plot, just a series of episodes, in which Hannay has to flee or hide the pursuit of both the police and the “Black Stone” (as the villainous organisation is known). Running across the wilds of Scotland and trying to survive sees him bumping into a variety of characters, from a would-be-novelist innkeeper, a local road-mender, a Free Trade politician, an automobile tourist who is implied to be homosexual (which Hannay, and Buchan through him, take as clear licence to be abusive), and an assortment of Highland locals. For me, this section felt a bit episodic without building up to anything, but it was clear Buchan was enjoying himself. I started wondering if there wasn’t a sort of metaphor for being a writer in Hannay’s situation, as though Buchan were writing about the adventure of writing itself. Given a clue in the form of a coded notebook — like being handed a moment of creative inspiration — Hannay finds himself impersonating a number of different people, like an author proving he can get inside the lives of a variety of characters. Hannay gets into situations he has to figure his way out of, and I couldn’t help feeling Buchan put him into those situations just so Buchan, too, could work his way out of them, as a sort of writing self-challenge.

The element of impersonation seems to be a key aspect of the book. Hannay starts off impersonating a milkman to escape his flat (which is being watched by the agents of the Black Stone), but later ends up playing the role of a tramp, a road-mender, an Australian political expert, and a petty thief, all in an attempt to escape detection. In this he’s guided by advice he remembers from an old friend, “the best scout I ever knew”, who told him how to pass himself off as someone else:

He said, barring absolute certainties like fingerprints, mere physical traits were very little use for identification if the fugitive really knew his business. He laughed at things like dyed hair and false beards and such childish follies. The only thing that mattered was what Peter called ‘atmosphere’.

If a man could get into perfectly different surroundings from those in which he had been first observed, and—this is the important part—really play up to these surroundings and behave as if he had never been out of them, he would puzzle the cleverest detectives on earth…

Richard Hannay looking as much like James Bond as the illustrator can make him

It’s when Hannay eventually returns to England and gets in touch with the authorities that, for me, the tension properly kicks in. Suddenly, he has to understand the final clues in Scudder’s notebook — among them the meaning of that phrase, “the thirty-nine steps”, which will tell him how the villains are planning to escape the country — and catch them before they get out with vital information that will make war not only inevitable, but disastrous for Britain. It’s also at this point Hannay ceases having to impersonate people, and instead has to spot impersonators. The people he’s after are masters of disguise — one is able to walk into a closed meeting of the topmost military staff and pass himself off as the First Sea Lord, in front of people who must surely have met the First Sea Lord many times. Even when Hannay works out where the thirty-nine steps are, and finds the people he knows must be the villains, their bluff at being perfectly ordinary Englishmen is so perfect, he starts to doubt himself.

Quite how he sees through them, at the end, is a bit of a mystery, but it happens:

“…in a flash, the air seemed to clear. Some shadow lifted from my brain, and I was looking at the three men with full and absolute recognition… The three faces seemed to change before my eyes and reveal their secrets. The young one was the murderer. Now I saw cruelty and ruthlessness, where before I had only seen good-humour… The plump man’s features seemed to dislimn, and form again, as I looked at them. He hadn’t a face, only a hundred masks that he could assume when he pleased… But the old man was the pick of the lot. He was sheer brain, icy, cool, calculating, as ruthless as a steam hammer. Now that my eyes were opened I wondered where I had seen the benevolence. His jaw was like chilled steel, and his eyes had the inhuman luminosity of a bird’s.”

1915 HB cover

It reminds me of H G Wells’s early novels, whose protagonists come to see the world in two ways at once, as both superficially ordinary and, under the surface, full of potential danger. In The Island of Doctor Moreau, after his adventures, the protagonist can’t help seeing the potential beast in everyone around him, however superficially civilised. Here, it’s Hannay’s fellow citizens who seem perfectly, almost boringly, normal one moment, then villainous foreign agents, anarchists and spies the next. (And I can’t help comparing Buchan’s “He was sheer brain, icy, cool, calculating” with Wells’s “intellects vast cool and unsympathetic” from The War of the Worlds.)

Was there something in the late-19th/early-20th century psyche that started to look at the world in a new way, to see that behind the apparently ordered surface, there was the potential for nothing but chaos? Alien invasions and beastmen in the case of Wells, anarchists and war-mongers in the case of Buchan? Rooted, perhaps, in the likes of Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde and Wilde’s Portrait of Dorian Gray, where that double-vision starts with the darker secrets of the human psyche, it quickly leads to distrust of one’s fellows, and then it’s only a short step to the ultimate cosmic horrors of Lovecraft or David Lindsay’s Gnostic fantasy A Voyage to Arcturus. There was definitely something in the collective imagination in those days, and the World Wars that followed did nothing to put anyone’s minds at rest as to the stable nature of things.

The other Buchan novel I’ve reviewed here at Mewsings, Witch Wood, has an element of this too, with its secret coven of Devil-worshippers in a Scottish village. Richard Hannay would become a continuing character in a number of other Buchan novels, which may be worth a read, and the ending, at least, of The Thirty-Nine Steps really worked as a thriller, for me.

Comments (11)

  1. Aonghus Fallon says:

    I didn’t know you reviewed Witch Wood! Coincidentally, I read this a few months ago. Both books impressed me with their vivid sense of place (hardly surprising, given that Buchan was a Scot) less so with their respective storylines, which I found kind of opaque. Seeing the trailer for the version starring Powell (I never got to see the film) may have been a factor re The Thirty-Nine Steps. I thought there’d be a lot more derring-do, but the character never ends up hanging from a clockface, etc.

    I remember having a similar experience with The Iliad. I kept waiting for the horse to turn up, but it never did.

    Maybe the notion of everybody having two faces is a reflection of Victorian and Edwardian culture, with its emphasis on propriety. So many people led secret lives. You could theorise that the current obsession with superheroes over in the US is due to similar factors, the irony being that people are now fantasising that their better half is hidden away out of sight rather than their more unsavoury aspect.

  2. Murray Ewing says:

    “I kept waiting for the horse to turn up, but it never did.” — great!

    I think you’re right about Victorian/Edwardians needing a sort of two-facedness. The same is true of the idea of Empire and the idea of “the Gentleman” as a sort of paragon of virtue. Neither the British Empire nor the British Gentleman were paragons of virtue, which creates (in those who cling to these ideals) a need to invent enemies within, to explain why things are going so wrong. (One of Buchan’s first political roles was to be sent to Africa to sort out the British concentration camps created during the Boer War, where thousands of women and children were dying due to disease. Not exactly something to be all Imperial and proud of.)

    And yes, about superheroes. Added to that is that idea that if I only had superpowers, what a great person I’d be! I’m just waiting for my radioactive spiderbite.

  3. Aonghus Fallon says:

    I actually thought The Iliad was very good, but no horse?

    I reckon any empire needs to see its citizens as a civilising force – ie this would be just as true of Rome as of Great Britain. And you’re right to add that qualification about superheroes, which in itself is kind of interesting. ‘I’d be a better person if I was a powerful person’???

  4. Murray Ewing says:

    I suppose the empire-as-civilising force is a circular argument. An empire sees itself as the height of civilisation so of course it’s in the best position to civilise everyone else.

  5. Rawdon Crawley says:

    “Was there something in the late-19th/early-20th century psyche that started to look at the world in a new way, to see that behind the apparently ordered surface, there was the potential for nothing but chaos? ”

    Well, yes, there was. You’ve only got to look at the “England-invaded” books, or the Evil Criminals Intent On Overthrowing Civilisation As We Know It to realise that. You’ll find it in Kipling, the archetypal imperialist writer. Saki/H.H. Munro, had been a correspondent in eastern Europe and seen wars and revolutions and had written When William Came, one of the best “England-invaded” books, but welcomed war when it came.

    Herbert Asquith’s poem
    The Volunteer

    Here lies a clerk who half his life had spent
    Toiling at ledgers in a city grey,
    Thinking that so his days would drift away
    With no lance broken in life’s tournament
    Yet ever ‘twixt the books and his bright eyes
    The gleaming eagles of the legions came,
    And horsemen, charging under phantom skies,
    Went thundering past beneath the oriflamme.

    And now those waiting dreams are satisfied
    From twilight to the halls of dawn he went;
    His lance is broken; but he lies content
    With that high hour, in which he lived and died.
    And falling thus, he wants no recompense,
    Who found his battle in the last resort
    Nor needs he any hearse to bear him hence,
    Who goes to join the men of Agincourt.

    was written two years before the war began.

  6. Murray Ewing says:

    (Sorry taking so long to reply to this!)

    I hadn’t read that Asquith poem before. It’s chilling, read from this side of the Great War.

    I haven’t read any of the England-invaded books, but I wonder if they have the same sense, as The Thirty-Nine Steps, of the Empire being brought down from forces within, forces who seem, on the surface, indistinguishable from “us”. Thinking of it in terms of Wells, The War of the Worlds has the invasion coming very much from outside, but The Island of Doctor Moreau is all about the potential “invader”, monster, or beast within.

    I’m wondering what Asquith might have felt if he’d looked within his toiling clerk and found him equally willing to fight against the Empire, just so long as he had his dreams of fight & adventure satisfied!

    1. Rawdon Crawley says:

      Saki is probably the best exemplar of someone who was “willing to fight against the Empire, just so long as he had his dreams of fight & adventure satisfied” – a Tory whose favourite characters were young men bringing down the Establishment with derision, who enlisted over-age and died in the trenches. He’d been a journalist in eastern Europe, which involved some danger, so he knew something of what war meant.

      1. Murray Ewing says:

        I didn’t realise Saki enlisted over-age. But that makes sense from what you say about him.

        1. Rawdon Crawley says:

          The Cupboard Of The Yesterdays – it’s easy to find on the ‘net – isn’t a good stpry, but it shows the way Saki – and many others, I think – felt just before WWI broke out.

  7. Garen says:

    Thanks for an interesting view of The Thirty-Nine Steps. I read it last year (or was it the year before?) and then read the kind-of-similar Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household directly after it, and now the two have become slightly conflated in my mind. I loved the Powell film when I first saw it, I guess in the early 80s.

    1. Murray Ewing says:

      I thought the Powell film was slightly more faithful to the book — except for the ending, of course, which wouldn’t be very cinematic. I’d come to know the Hitchcock film better, but that just takes on the basic idea of the plot (which Hitchcock would go on to use again in his later films, especially North by Northwest).

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