Book Reviews, Classics

Review – ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps’ – John Buchan

The poster for the book's 1935 Hitchcock adaptation
The poster for the book’s 1935 Hitchcock adaptation

A few years ago, I watched the 2005 adaptation of The Thirty-Nine Steps starring Rupert Penry-Jones, and I thought it was a fun mix between period drama and James Bond. So, I thought I would read the novel behind it, by John Buchan, which was published in 1915. However, unfortunately I did not enjoy it as much as the film that I saw, and thought it paled in comparison to my expectations.

ThirtyNineStepsThe story of The Thirty-Nine Steps concerns Richard Hannay in May 1914. He is approached by a stranger called Scudder, who says that he is in great danger and in need of help. Hannay lets the man stay with him and listens to his story. He tells him of a conspiracy plot which will shake Europe and start a war, by assassinating the Greek Prime Minister, Karolides. However, one day Hannay returns home to find Scudder stabbed to death in his apartment, and flees, fearing that he will be blamed. His plan is to hide until the plot that Scudder predicted takes place, and then return with Scudder’s notes to prove his innocence. He gets on a train to Scotland, but finds himself a hunted man, both by the police for Scudder’s death and by Scudder’s enemies, in case he knows what Scudder knew. So, we follow Hannay as he tries to avoid capture and tries to prevent war.

What I found most boring about this novel was the lack of interesting characters. Not that Hannay was boring, because he was not, but he seemed to be brilliant at everything. Luckily for him, Richard Hannay has been a mining engineer, soldier and intelligence officer and speaks German, all of which proves very helpful as he evades capture. He manages to decode Scudder’s notes, discover where the German agents are hiding when all the best intelligence officers in England cannot, figure out what part of the coast it will take place even when a man who supposedly knows it better than anybody cannot, and just happened to learn spying techniques from a friend who was once a spy. Hannay was an early twentieth century James Bond, which is fine, but I would have much preferred some sort of side-kick character, a partner, which is what he has in the movie adaptations, in the form of a female love interest.

Writer John Buchan
Writer John Buchan

I admit, I spent most of the book waiting for the female character that I saw in the film, and know is also present in earlier adaptations, only to be disappointed. I was not waiting for it purely because I like romantic sub-plots, but because I don’t enjoy reading about character who know everything and don’t need anybody else! Relationships and partners in crime are much more fun to read about, and considering the time that the book was set and written in, such a character being female would have been fantastic. In fact, the only female characters in the whole novel were Scottish housewives who gave Hannay a room to stay in and some food, and barely spoke, if they spoke at all. So, apart from Richard Hannay being a superhero of his time, all of the other significant characters were male and largely useless in comparison to Hannay and his set of super-spy skills.

Nevertheless, the book’s writing style was not bad, and I actually enjoyed the way that Buchan wrote, which makes the characters even more of a shame. The sentences were easy to read and flowed well, and were sometimes quite funny. I particularly enjoyed a passage where Richard Hannay comments on how he escaped to evade a murder he had not committed, and in the passage of doing so committed crimes he would have never expected to. It is disappointing though, to think that just slightly better crafted characters this book could have been so much more, and genuinely enjoyable.

Overall, I was unfortunately disappointed with The Thirty-Nine Steps. Although the film that I watched probably set me up for failure considering how much I enjoyed aspects of it that weren’t in the book, but I think that the lack of interesting characters would have rendered me just as bored even if I had entered into it with no preconceptions.

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