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 protagonists 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.

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Witch Wood by John Buchan

I bought James Cawthorn & Michael Moorcock’s Fantasy: The 100 Best Books in a sale back in 1992, and have carried on a sort of book-by-book conversation with it ever since. I don’t know if I intend to read every one of its suggested hundred — I’ve just ticked off my 59th with John Buchan’s Witch Wood — but I’m often referring to it, wondering if this or that title has made the Cawthorn & Moorcock grade, or browsing it for reading suggestions. One thing I have come to learn is that their definition of fantasy is not necessarily mine (Moby Dick, for instance), nor is their definition of best (L Sprague de Camp’s Tritonian Ring, for instance), but that’s the fun of such lists. They’re only annoying if you forget they’re just one (or in this case two) person’s opinion and expect them to be in some way definitive.

Witch Wood (published in 1927) was Buchan’s favourite of his own novels (The Thirty-Nine Steps being everyone else’s). It’s set in the mid-seventeenth century, in rural Scotland, where a young minister, David Sempill, has just taken up a post in the kirk of Woodilee. There’s plenty of thick Scots dialogue (“Haste ye, sir, and help me off wi’ thae Babylonish garments, and that weskit o’ airn — what for sud folk gang to the smith for cleading and no to a wabster?”), and plenty of Scots Jacobean religio-politics. The edition I read had a three-page glossary at the back to help with some of the dialect, but as often as not it didn’t have the words I was looking up. (The second part of the above line, by the way, translates as: “why should folk go to a smith for their clothing, and not to a weaver?”) The politics, which I tried to skim past at first, eventually required a brief trip to Wikipedia to get through — Buchan was, after all, of that educated class that expected its readers to understand Latin, and have a far more detailed knowledge of the country’s history than modern readers (and I’m shamefully ignorant of everything Blue Peter never taught me). But the story itself was compelling, though it wasn’t till the penultimate chapter that it really clicked what type of story it was. And knowing what type of story is being told is key, really, to enjoying a book.

So, what type of story is Witch Wood? It earned its place in Cawthorn & Moorcock’s list because of the new minister’s discovery that, as well as attending kirk every Sabbath, a good portion of his parishioners disappear into the wood (the wonderfully named Melanudrigill, or just “the Wud” to the locals, who fear to name it) to take part in Devil-worshipping rites around an old pagan altar. The new minister learns of this practice when, having got lost one night in an attempt to overcome his fear of a place that a man with God on his side ought not to fear, witnesses his flock, masked as animals, dancing round the altar and, in Buchan’s own delicate phrasing, kissing “some part of the leader’s body, nozzling him like dogs on the roadside”. Yes, we all know where witches are supposed to kiss the Devil, thank you very much.

Sempill sets about trying to uncover and denounce the coven, but soon finds himself set against both the superstitious fear of his parishioners, and the bigotry of his kirk elders. This may make it sound like a sort of proto-Wicker Man or historical Devil Rides Out, but although Witch Wood is definitely in the ancestry of both those stories, its emphasis is different. It’s not really a horror novel (though it contains some wonderfully atmospheric description of the Wud at night: “The clouds had thinned and the struggling moon showed Melanudrigill before them, rising and falling like an ocean of darkness.”), nor is it a fantasy novel (part of its denouement could be taken as an act of God, but it might just as well be the effect of conscience, or superstition, and there are no really fantastic occurrences). As well as the Devil-worship plot, there’s a pretty much separable love story, and a subplot involving David Sempill’s agonising over his political allegiances — all of which, for the bulk of the novel, are kept separate, meaning the Devil-worship subplot lies fallow for whole chapters at a time. It was only in the penultimate chapter, when the effect of these three strands come crashing down on the young David Sempill that the book clicked for me and I realised it was really the story of an idealistic young man learning to see the world’s hypocrisy, superstition, and sheer human pig-headedness in all its disillusioning glory. Not a vicar-versus-witches adventure story, then, but something more psychological.

And at this point, it became quite powerful. The previously ingenuous, and often slightly soft-spined Sempill gained a new, dark hardness, which allowed him at last to face up to his foes and deal with them in his own way. (But not, as in another devil-worship-in-rural-Britain story — Blood On Satan’s Claw — by wielding a huge sword. Sempill uses words alone.)

So, not a fantasy book, though certainly one that may appeal to fantasy or horror readers. I’m certainly glad I read it. One more to tick off my Cawthorn & Moorcock list.

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