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To Thomas Arthur Nelson, Lothian and Border Horse

My Dear Tommy,

You and I have long cherished an affection for that elemental type of tale which Americans call the “dime novel” and which we know as the “shocker”—the romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible. During an illness last winter I exhausted my store of those aids to cheerfulness, and was driven to write one for myself. This little volume is the result, and I should like to put your name on it in memory of our long friendship, in the days when the wildest fictions are so much less improbable than the facts.

J.B. Sept. 1915

While John Buchan may not quite have invented the spy thriller--James Fenimore Cooper, Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad and Erskine Childers are all potential claimants--his novels nonetheless established many norms of the genre, none more so than The 39 Steps. Originally serialized in Blackwood's Magazine in August and September 1915, then published as a completed novel in 1915 and immortalized in film by Alfred Hitchcock in 1935, it introduced his archetypal hero, Richard Hannay, the unsuspecting everyman who incidentally gets caught up in global intrigue and has to go on the run, often after a mere MacGuffin.

In this first "shocker," as Buchan termed them, Hannay has taken a flat in London upon returning from a mining venture in Rhodesia and finds himself bored to tears by the city. Not to worry; a neighbor corners him, tells him of an assassniation plot that could plunge Europe into war and is promptly murdered in Hannay's own apartment. Off goes our intrepid hero by train to Scotland where he then dodges police and criminals and even an early aeroplane as he indulges a virtual walking tour across mountains, bogs and heaths, obtaining aid from various helpful bystanders before encountering the bad guys and being enlisted by the government in the effort to thwart them.

Although we are now more used to the sort of chase that mainly occurs in crowded cities--the Bourne films; Taken; etc.--Buchan, an inveterate walker himself, makes the countryside no less thrilling a venue for his pursuit story. Indeed, the openness of the terrain makes the scenes with the aeroplane just as graphic and exciting as when Hitchcock borrowed the trope for North by Northwest. If it's never exactly clear what is at stake, Hannay's escape and eventual search for the 39 steps drives the story so propulsively we don't much have time to ponder it. And while the novel lacks the sort of love interest that later copycats would add in, the cast of characters he meets along the way is colorful and entertaining.

Given our day and age, one issue must be addressed and that is the politically incorrect language of the story. The description of Jews is, while not strictly derogatory, freighted with race and stereotypes in a way we would object to now. And there is no higher praise in the novel than to call someone a white man: “I haven’t the privilege of your name, sir, but let me tell you that you’re a white man." For all that, it seems only fair to say that these were more signs of the times than of any genuine anti-Semitism on the author's part, though was undoubtedly an Imperialist. Roger Kimball has written a thoroughly worthwhile essay on the topic, which is dispositive for my money.


Grade: (A)


See also:

John Buchan (2 books reviewed)
John Buchan Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: John Buchan
    -The John Buchan Story
    -The John Buchan Society
    -FILMOGRAPHY: John Buchan (IMDB)
    -WIKIPEDIA: Richard Hannay
-PODCAST: Oh! What a Lovely Podcast (a podcast that focuses on World War I) discusses John Buchan's ever-popular thriller The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), including burning questions such as why you should never let Richard Hannay drive. (Oh What a Lovely Podcast, 10/03/22)
    -PODCAST: Ursula Buchan on her grandfather, John Buchan (Sam Leith, The Spectator Books Podcast)
    -ENTRY: John Buchan, Lord Tweedsmuir of Elsfield (1875-1940) (George Grant, Canadian Christian Leaders)
    -ENTRY: John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir: British statesman and author (Encyclopaedia Britannica)
    -EXCERPT: Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps: A Life of John Buchan, by Ursula Buchan
    -WALKING TOUR: The John Buchan Way (Visit Scotland)
    -WIKIPEDIA: The Thirty-Nine Steps
    -PODCAST: On the trail of John Buchan's Thirty-Nine Steps : We examine the enduring legacy of John Buchan’s thriller, with Robert McCrum and Kate Macdonald (The Guardian Books Podcast)
    -ETEXT: The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (Project Gutenberg)
    -AUDIO BOOK: The 39 Steps by John Buchan (Richard Hannay #1) (YouTube)
    -EXCERPT: First Chaper: The Thirty-Nine Steps
    -AUDIO: The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan: John Buchan’s thrilling tale of derring-do, secrets and spies set in the shadows of war. Read by Kenny Blyth. Produced by Karen Holden. (BBC)
    -The 39 Steps | John Buchan (Food Reference List) (In Literature)
    -EXHIBIT: 'The thirty-nine steps' — one hundred years on (National Library of Scotland)
    -PODCAST: Episode 93: The 39 Steps by John Buchan (HOSTED BY JOHN J. MILLER, July 23, 2019, National Review: Great Books podcast)
-ESSAY: Imperial fiction: Richard Hannay (ALWYN TURNER, Lion & Unicorn)
    -ESSAY: Such, such were the goys: Xenophobic 1920s novels inspired my lifelong love of literature; they should not be cancelled (Jonathon Green, Aug/Sep 2021, The Critic)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Great Scot: Between Kipling and Fleming stands John Buchan, the father of the modern spy thriller (CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS, MARCH 2004, The Atlantic)
    -ESSAY: Catching up with John Buchan (Roger Kimball, June 27, 2012, The Fortnightly Review)
    -ESSAY: “Realism coloured by poetry”: rereading John Buchan (Roger Kimball, September 2003, New Criterion)
    -BOOK LIST: The 100 best novels: No 42 - The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1915): John Buchan's espionage thriller, with its sparse, contemporary prose, is hard to put down (Robert McCrum, 7 Jul 2014, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: Colour copy: In May 1915, John Buchan was appointed by The Times as special war correspondent at the Second Battle of Ypres, from where he dispatched six eyewitness reports (Roger Clarke, TLS)
    -ESSAY: High-lowbrow: Hunting down John Buchan (Robert Messenger, TLS)
    -ESSAY: How The Thirty-Nine Steps invented the modern thriller (Christian House, 11 OCTOBER 2015, The Telegraph)
    -ESSAY: John Buchan and The Thirty-Nine Steps: John Buchan's hero, Richard Hannay, was a patriotic precursor of James Bond whose appeal is undiminished nearly a century after he was created. Stella Rimington, the former head of MI5, celebrates this most gentlemanly of spies. (Stella Rimington, 11 Jan 2011, The Telegraph)
    -ESSAY: Buchan, Broadstairs and the 39 Steps (Martin Charlton, 6/12/2019, The Isle of Thanet News)
    -ESSAY: From the Gorbals to The 39 Steps - can we learn to love John Buchan again? (Mark Smith, 11th March 2019, Herald Scotland)
    -ESSAY: Novel to Screen to Stage: Evolving, Step by Step (Edward Rothstein, Jan. 28th, 2008, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: The 39 Steps to writing a perfect thriller (by the grandson of the author who wrote the first ever modern spy novel) (TOBY BUCHAN, 15 January 2011, Daily Mail)
    -ESSAY: Hunted men in John Buchan’s London, 1890s to 1920s (Kate Macdonald, Literary London)
    -ESSAY: John Buchan’s clubland heroes: In The Thirty-Nine Steps and his other yarns – with their decent chaps in scrapes and men on the run – John Buchan invented the modern spy novel. (WILLIAM BOYD, New Statesman)
    -ESSAY: What can spy novelists learn from the enduring popularity of The Thirty-Nine Steps?: A hundred years on from the publication of The Thirty-Nine Steps, what is John Buchan's legacy and how have spy novels endured in an age of supranational politics? (Nick Young, 8/04/15, New Statesman)
    -ESSAY: Retracing The Thirty-Nine Steps in Buchan’s beloved Borders: Richard Hannay’s first adventure, now 100 years old, is a pastoral disguised as a thriller (William Cook, 10 October 2015, The Spectator)
    -ESSAY: The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan: The Importance of the Impossible (SEAN FITZPATRICK, 6/12/2014, Crisis)
    -ESSAY: John Buchan's Richard Hannay: Stranger than Fiction - the undercover spying mission of a British officer disguised as a Boer in German South-West Africa provided John Buchan with inspiration for his most famous character (Geoffrey Powell , 8 August 1987, History Today)
    -ESSAY: Imperial fiction: Richard Hannay (ALWYN TURNER, 6/16/2018, Lion & Unicorn)
    -ESSAY: Masculinities in the Richard Hannay ‘War Trilogy’ of John Buchan (Joseph A. Kestner, Edited by Kate Macdonald, Nathan Waddell, John Buchan and the Idea of Modernity)
    -ESSAY: Buchan's Richard Hannay (J. Randolph Cox, Volume 32, Number 4, 1989, English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: The Last Victorian: John Buchan and the Hannay Quartet (Brett F. Woods, April 19, 2020, California Literary Review)
    -ESSAY: Lost Gay Novel: John Buchan's Greenmantle (Anthony Slide, 11 Oct 2008, Harrington Gay Men's Literary Quarterly)
    -LECTURE: “The Only Task For A Man”: Men and Manhood In John Buchan’s Richard Hannay Novels (John Crompton, September 23, 2013, Reading 1900-1950)
    -ESSAY: My Grandfather and Mr Standfast (URSULA BUCHAN, Slightly Foxed)
    -ESSAY: John Buchan and the First World War: Fact into Fiction (Hew Strachan, July 2009, War in History)
    -ESSAY: A warning from the past that the BBC does not want us to hear (Charles Moore, 16 Jul 2005, The Telegraph)
    -ESSAY: John Buchan and the Birth of Modern Spy Fiction (Michael Mallory, Mystery Scene)
    -ARCHIVES: John Buchan (Upper Tweed)
    -ARCHIVES: buchan (London Review of Books)
    -ARCHIVES: John Buchan (The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of The Best of John Buchan: Three Rip-Roaring Richard Hannay Thrillers: The Thirty-Nine Steps, Greenmantle, Mr Standfast (Philip Womack, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of The Complete Richard Hannay by John Buchan (John Ure, Slightly Foxed)
    -REVIEW: of The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (Nicola Davis, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of The Thirty-Nine Steps (Christina Hardyment, Times of London)
    -REVIEW: of The Thirty-Nine Steps (Kate Macdonald, The John Buchan Society)
    -REVIEW: of The Thirty-Nine Steps (Robert Wilson, Sydney Morning Herald)
    -REVIEW: of The Thirty-Nine Steps (100 BEST SCOTTISH BOOKS OF ALL TIME,
    -REVIEW: of The Thirty-Nine Steps (Brian Morton, Scottish Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of The Thirty-Nine Steps (Whispering Stories)
    -REVIEW: of The Thirty-Nine Steps (Happy Catholic)
    -REVIEW: of The Thirty-Nine Steps (Pining for the West)
    -REVIEW: of The Thirty-Nine Steps (James Inskster, Spybrary)
    -REVIEW: of The Thirty-Nine Steps (Ms Oh Waily, 1001 BOOKS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE)
    -REVIEW: of The Thirty-Nine Steps (Intellectual Mediocrity)
    -REVIEW: of The Thirty-Nine Steps (The Readers Room)
    -REVIEW: of The Three Hostages by John Buchan (Kate Macdonald, The John Buchan Society)
    -REVIEW: of The Three Hostages (Robert Weaver, Liberty University)
    -REVIEW: of Greenmantle by John Buchan (Kevin Sampson, Independent)
    -REVIEW: of Greenmantle (Macleans)
    -REVIEW: of Greenmantle (Mary Reed, MysteryFile)
    -REVIEW: of Greenmantle (Victorian Explorer)
    -REVIEW: of Greenmantle (Lesley Mason, Book Bag)
    -REVIEW: of The Power-House by John Buchan (Kate Macdonald)
    -REVIEW: of The Island of Sheep by John Buchan (David R, Reading 1900-1950)
    -REVIEW: of Lord Minto: A Memoir by John Buchan (O. D. Skelton, The Canadian Historical Review)
    -REVIEW: of Pilgrim's Way by John (Lord Tweedamuir) Buchan (Kirkus)
    -REVIEW: of Pilgrim's Way ( John W. Wheeler-Bennett, VQR)
    -REVIEW: of Augustus by John Buchan (Michael Ginsburg, The American Historical Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Runagates Club by John Buchan (Ada Coghen, TLS)
    -REVIEW: of Runagates Club (John Cleal, Crime Review)
    -REVIEW: of John Buchan: a Memoir by William Buchan (PN Furbank, LRB)
    -REVIEW: of John Buchan: Model Governor General by J. William Galbraith (James Buchan, The Spectator)
    -REVIEW: of Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps: A Life of John Buchan by Ursula Buchan (Anthony Quinn, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps (John Lloyd, TLS)
    -REVIEW: of Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps (Robert Messenger, WSJ)
    -REVIEW: of Beyond the Thirty Nine Steps (Murray Scougill, Sunday Post)
    -REVIEW: of Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps (Christopher Tayler, LRB)
    -REVIEW: of Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps (Stuart Kelly, The Scotsman)
    -REVIEW: of Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps (Justin Marozzi, Financial Times)
    -REVIEW: of Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps (John Carey, Times uk)
    -REVIEW: of Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps (Allan Massie, Spectator USA)
    -REVIEW: of Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps (Taylor Downing, History Today)
    -REVIEW: of John Buchan: The Presbyterian Cavalier BY ANDREW LOWNIE (Christopher Hitchens, The Atlantic)
    -REVIEW: of John Buchan: The Presbyterian Cavalier (James Buchan, LRB)
    -REVIEW: of John Buchan: The Presbyterian Cavalier (Publishers Weekly)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Alfred Hitchcock (IMDB)
-WIKIPEDIA: Alfred Hitchcock
    -ENTRY: Alfred Hitchcock English-born American director (Michael Barson, Encyclopaedia Britannica)
    -ENTRY: Hitchcock, Alfred (
    -FILMOGRAPHY: The 39 Steps (1935) (IMDB)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: John Buchan (IMDB)
    -WIKIPEDIA: The 39 Steps (1935 film)
    -Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: The 39 Steps (1935) (Brenton Film)
    -ENTRY: The 39 Steps film by Hitchcock [1935] (Lee Pfeiffer, Encyclopaedia Britannica)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: 39 Steps (Metacritic)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: 39 Steps (Rotten Tomatoes)
    -VIDEO: The 39 Steps (1935) (YouTube)
    -ESSAY: Hitchcock is still on top of film world (Roger Ebert August 13, 1999, Chicago Sun Times)
    -ESSAY: The Hitchcock Universe: Thiry-nine steps and then some (George Perry, Hitchycock TV)
    -ESSAY: Introduction to Hitchcock and THE 39 STEPS (Joel Gunz, October 24, 2018, Alfred Hitchcock Geek)
    -ESSAY: Beginner’s Guide to Alfred Hitchcock: The 39 Steps (1935) (Manish Mathur, Talk Film Society)
    -ESSAY: Mirth, Sexuality and Suspense: Alfred Hitchcock's Adaptation of "The Thirty-Nine Steps" (Stuart Y. McDougal, Literature/Film Quarterly)
    -ESSAY: Alfred Hitchcock and John Buchan: The Art of Creative Transformation (Tony Williams, May 2007, Senses of Cinema)
    -ESSAY: How to be a Hero: Space, Place and Masculinity in The 39 Steps (Hitchcock, UK, 1935) (Angela Devas, 20 Aug 2006, Journal of Gender Studies)
    -ESSAY: COUNTING DOWN THE GREATEST CRIME FILMS OF ALL-TIME: #66: The 39 Steps (1935) (OTTO PENZLER, 4/12/19, Crime Reads)
    -ESSAY: Alfred Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps”: A Coded Message? (K. V. Turley, October 4th, 2018, Imaginative Conservative)
    -WIKIPEDIA: The 39 Steps (2008 film)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: The 39 Steps (2008) (IMDB)
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps (1935) (ANDRE SENNWALD, September 14, 1935, NY Times)
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps (Michael Sragow, The New Yorker))
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps (The Telegraph, The 75 best British films ever made)
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps (Mark Duguid, Screen Online)
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps (AMC Filmsite)
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps (Marian Keene, Criterion)
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps (Tony Paley, The Guardian)
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps (Michael Wilmington, Criterion)
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps (Kevin Maher, Times uk)
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps (HELEN BROWN NORDEN, AUGUST 1935, Vanity Fair)
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps (Chuck Bowen, Slant)
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps (Scott Tobias, AV Club)
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps (Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader)
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps (TIME, Sept. 23, 1935)
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps (Thomas Dawson, BBC)
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps (Andrew Collins, Radio Times)
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps (Martin Chilton, The Telegraph)
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps (Reel Film)
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps (Brian Costello, Common Sense Media)
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps (Matt Brunson, Creative Loafing)
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps (Emanuel Levy)
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps (walter Chaw, Film Freak Central)
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps (Michael J. Casey, Boulder Weekly)
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps ()
    -FILM REVIEW: The 39 Steps (Polygon)

Book-related and General Links:

    -REVIEW ESSAY: JACK REACHER AND THE GRAND UNIFIED THEORY OF THRILLERS: Malcolm Gladwell dives into the world of Lee Child and his legendary wandering warrior (MALCOLM GLADWELL, 8/20/2020, Crime Reads)