The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan opens with thirty-seven-year-old Scotchman Richard Hannay bored with life in London in May of 1914. He had been a mining engineer in Rhodesia and came to England, but has no friends and nothing to do. He’s on the verge of finding something else to do with his life when he’s accosted at his door by an American from a neighboring flat pleading for his help.
He lets the man in, a Franklin Scudder, who tells him what seems a fantastic tale at first. Scudder has just faked his own death. He’s sort of a free-lance spy who had come upon a secret on international intrigue, a plot to kill the Greek premier, Karolides, when he comes to England, which will set off a series of negative political repercussions. When Hannay suggests Karolides can be warned not to come, Scudder objects that Karolides is needed for the meetings he is to attend. What Scudder wants to do is hide out in Hannay’s flat until June 15, when he can get to the appropriate authorities.
At first Hannay thinks Scudder must be insane, but the more he talks, especially when he brings up Karolides, whom Hannay had just been reading about, Hannay believes him and agrees to let him stay. Meanwhile Scudder changes disguises to look like a British officer.
Hannay enjoys having the company for several days and notices Scudder scribbling in a notebook from time to time. When Hannay has to go out for a meeting, he comes home to find Scudder stabbed to death in his flat.
And that’s just the first chapter.
Shocked and disconcerted, Hannay investigates his flat for clues and considers whether to call the police. No one knows him in London, and he knew little enough about Scudder to make the whole situation seem fishy, concluding that he would probably be suspected for the murder. It was three weeks until the June 15th meeting, and Hannay decides to take Scudder’s notebook and take on his task.When he leaves his flat he notices a face in a neighboring window watching him.
On the run both from the police and the men who were after Scudder, Hannay’s journey takes him into all sorts of places and situations.
I liked that Hannay is presented as a fairly ordinary man. He has a few talents that come in handy, but in general he’s just a “regular chap” trying to do what he thinks is the right thing. He says he is “no Sherlock Holmes,” but he uses his wits and powers of deduction a fair bit.
I am an ordinary sort of fellow, not braver than other people, but I hate to see a good man downed, and that long knife would not be the end of Scudder if I could play the game in his place.
All this was very loose guessing, and I don’t pretend it was ingenious or scientific. I wasn’t any kind of Sherlock Holmes. But I have always fancied I had a kind of instinct about questions like this. I don’t know if I can explain myself, but I used to use my brains as far as they went, and after they came to a blank wall I guessed, and I usually found my guesses pretty right.
The writing grabbed me early on and held me throughout the book. Hannay got into various scrapes, building up the suspense of how he would get himself out of them, whether he’d make it to the authorities he needed to in time, whether he’d get in to see them, whether they’d believe him. The suspense lasted right up to the last page. After I finished the book I went back over some of the political stuff to get a better grasp of it, but even without that I had picked up enough to follow and enjoy the story. I also loved the Britishness of it and Hannay’s way of expressing himself.
Buchan wrote this while he was recovering from an ulcer. One day while visiting him where he was convalescing, his daughter counted 39 steps in the building, and Buchan decided to use that as a vital clue in the book. He wanted to write a “‘shocker’…where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible.” It’s one of the first “man on the run” type stories. He went on to write four more Hannay novels. This book was made into several films, one of them by Alfred Hitchcock, which I planned to look up until I read that all the films varied greatly from the book.
I listened to the audiobook wonderfully narrated by Robert Powell and read a number of sections in the Kindle version. I’d gotten the Kindle version on sale some time ago, but Hope’s review encouraged me to move this up on my TBR list. I quite enjoyed the story!