Friday, July 15, 2016

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

A novel that keeps being made into a movie clearly has captured popular imagination. The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan was filmed in 1935, 1959, 1978, and 2008. And according to IMDb it's scheduled for another remake in 2018.

This first book in the Richard Hannay series was published in 1915 and recounts the adventures of 37-year old Hannay on the eve of WWI. It has implausible twists, yet the hero is so endearing and earnest that you root for him from start to finish.

Chapter One opens with these droll comments: I returned from the city about three o'clock on that May afternoon pretty well disgusted with life. I had been three months in the old country and was fed up. If anyone had told me a year ago that I would feel like that I should have laughed at him. But there was the fact. The weather made me liverish. The talk of the ordinary Englishman made me sick. I couldn't get enough exercise and the amusements of London seemed as flat as soda water that has been standing in the sun.

The suspense mixed with British understatements had me chuckling with glee throughout. When Hannay discovers a murdered man in his apartment, he says, I had seen men die violently before. Indeed, I had killed a few myself in the war. But this cold-blooded indoor business was different.

And from Chapter Five: His name was Marmaduke Joppley and he was an offense to creation. He was a sort of blood stock broker who did his business by toadying elder sons and rich young peers and foolish old ladies. Marmy was a familiar figure at balls and polo weeks in country houses. He was an adroit scandal monger and would crawl a mile on his belly to anything that had a title or a million. . . . The snobbery of the creature turned me sick. I asked a man afterwards why no one kicked him out and was told that "English men reverence the weaker sex."

Stella Rimington, former head of MI5, Britain's Secret Service, wrote a fine article on why Buchan's books retain their popularity. I've included a few of her key points below.

[His books] have been compared to the James Bond books, and they certainly include plenty of expensive cars and other magnificent machines. . . . But Bond is a paid killer and a womanizer; patriotism does not obviously feature in his make-up. Richard Hannay is, above all, a patriotic, public-spirited gentleman, and that fact is key to Buchan’s purpose in writing the books and reflects his own social and political philosophy.
Against those nightmarish possibilities [of anarchy, enemy invasion, etc.], Buchan champions the things he thinks best in British civilization – education, gentlemanly and ladylike conduct, honesty, an adventurous questing, a self-sacrificing spirit and plenty of fresh air, long walks and cold baths. Could it be that these unfashionable virtues are what accounts for his enduring appeal?

This is a rollicking good tale mixed with wonderful "unfashionable virtues" and a large dose of good humor. There are free e-copies all over the internet, but I particularly enjoyed the version by David Thorn for $4.95.

Of the movie adaptations, the best was done by Alfred Hitchcock (although it includes a female who is nowhere in the book.) This 1935 version is in the public domain and can be watched on YouTube.


Amy @ Hope Is the Word said...

I'm intrigued! I think I have a copy of this on one of my shelves. Thanks for a great review!

Barbara H. said...

I have this on my Kindle but haven't read it yet. Thanks for the tip about the audiobook!

Carol said...

Buchan is one of my all time favourite authors. This one is a good introduction to Hannay and I think you'd enjoy the sequels especially Mr Standfast which uses imagery from Pilgrim's Progress.

Beckie Burnham said...

I read this book several years ago and really enjoyed it. I attended our local theater group's performance of it a few months back. Lots of fun! Thanks for your review.