The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

735Last May I saw the play The 39 Steps in London. It was a rip-roaring good time. In October, while wandering through a bookstore in Bath I spied a copy of the novel. I wanted to compare the novel to the play. I should mention that the play is a comedy and the novel is thriller. Normally when I purchase books, after I log them into my spreadsheet, I check to see if the book is on my 1001 list. This one is, which surprised me somewhat, but I can’t explain why.

This is a slim novel, only 122 pages. While recovering from a duodenal ulcer, John Buchan wrote this story. He called it a “shocker,” which according to Buchan is an adventure that includes events that probably wouldn’t happen in normal life and are barely believable. This novel introduces Richard Hannay, the hero of this story and four others.

Richard Hannay has recently returned from Rhodesia. He’s finding London life dull and wishes for something exciting to happen. Be careful what you wish for. One of Hannay’s neighbors, Franklin P. Scudder, asks for some help. As it turns out, Scudder is a spy and he reveals to Hannay that he’s uncovered a German plot to assassinate the Greek Premier. Usually when my neighbors knock on the door, they want a cup of sugar or something. Days later, Scudder is murdered. Hannay can’t go to the police since he’s a suspect. And the hero can’t sit idle and let the Germans accomplish their goal. He has to get to Scotland to foil the dastardly plot while being pursued by the police and German spies.

This novel is an early example of the archetype the ‘man-on-the-run’ thriller. Published in 1915, it became popular among the soldiers fighting in World War I. In case you are wondering about the title of the novel, according to Buchan’s son the title originated when his sister visited their father in a nursing home. She had recently learned to count and counted the steps of the wooden staircase that led down to the beach. She proclaimed that there were 39 steps.

It’s hard to compare this novel with the production currently showing in London. If pressed I would say I enjoyed the play more. It was hilarious. However, if I hadn’t seen the play first I think I would have preferred the novel. Like Buchan claimed, it’s hard to believe that the events could actually happen. For me, that made it exciting. Hannay keeps finding himself in these scrapes and then when you think he’s done for, he thinks of something. If you are in the mood for some adventure, grab this book, a cup of tea and cookies, and enjoy. Don’t overthink. Don’t analyze. Just go with it.

Okay folks, I have one more book from 2012 that I still need to review. I probably should write that soon. I hope all of you have a wonderful day—and if a neighbor knocks on your door asking for a favor, be careful!

About TBM

TB Markinson is an American who's recently returned to the US after a seven-year stint in the UK and Ireland. When she isn't writing, she's traveling the world, watching sports on the telly, visiting pubs in New England, or reading. Not necessarily in that order. Her novels have hit Amazon bestseller lists for lesbian fiction and lesbian romance. She cohosts the Lesbians Who Write Podcast ( with Clare Lydon. TB also runs I Heart Lesfic (, a place for authors and fans of lesfic to come together to celebrate lesbian fiction.
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39 Responses to The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

  1. You log your books into a spreadsheet?? You see, you do have organizational skills. I just knew it :).

  2. Bill Hayes says:

    There are also two films made of the 39 Steps. The modern one is with Robert Powell which includes a cliff hanging scene where he is being chased across the clock face of Big Ben. The earlier one in my view is better. Worth putting into your spread sheet and viewing.

  3. letizia says:

    I saw the play The 39 Steps in NYC years ago so was really interested to hear your experience about the novel (which I haven’t read). My memory of the play is a little foggy, but I do remember liking it a lot and liking the set and set changes as well.

    • TBM says:

      I think once you start reading the novel, the play will come back to you. Of course the novel doesn’t have all of the humor. I couldn’t stop laughing when I saw the play.

      • letizia says:

        I’ll definitely read the novel. If someone who’s read the novel sees me reading it, they may see me laughing as I read it if memories of the play come back to me and think me quite odd 🙂

      • TBM says:

        I’m always sneaking a peek at book covers to see what people are reading and I try to guess if they like what they are reading. I won’t let them in on your secret–unless they’ve seen the play. Which I highly recommend.

  4. Caroline says:

    I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the movie but can’t remember it.
    Funny, that definition of a “shocker”. It’s not exactly what I had in mind.
    This sounds well worth reading, thanks for reviewing it. I think I would like it.

    • TBM says:

      I found his definition of shocker quite comical. In today’s world, it probably wouldn’t fly since people might expect something more, like buildings blowing up or worse and more graphic. But back in the early 1900s I guess shocker kinda works. I hope you read it–would love to know your thoughts. If you’re ever in London I’ll lend you my copy. Of course I would have to stop by to retrieve it 🙂

      • Caroline says:

        I posted a comment on this but just sae it got lost (I finally have my ownlaptop again so things should get better).
        Are you planning to visit Switzerland? I looked at houses in the UK yesterday. Funny, right?

      • TBM says:

        We don’t have plans yet, but visiting Switzerland gets mentioned a lot in our home. Getting to European cities is so much easier and cheaper now that we live in London. Are you looking for houses for a visit or are you moving?

      • Caroline says:

        Not sure yet… I was thinking about moving. Feeling adventurous sort of. 🙂

      • TBM says:

        Wow! I know how you feel. The UK is a great place. I’m excited to hear what you decide. Just think, you can read your next Dickens in an English pub. And I don’t think the pet restrictions and rules are as difficult now.

  5. My mom loved this movie, and I saw both versions with her–starring Ronald Coleman in the first one and Kenneth Moore in the newer one. When the play was showing in New York a couple of years ago, we went. It is very different–designed to showcase the talents of four actors in well over a hundred roles, with a lot of physical comedy. I LOVED this play!

  6. How strange that a “shocker” would be turned into a funny play! I may have to read this or watch the movie as I’m intrigued by the whole idea.

  7. IsobelandCat says:

    Like you, I have read the book and seen this play. I prefer the book, though the play was fun.

  8. elisaruland says:

    I’m not familiar with the novel or the movie, but you’ve piqued my interest. That is a great shot, by the way!!

  9. Novroz says:

    I would love to know more of the novel and and the play comparison. How can a thriller be a comedy?

    • TBM says:

      The play combined the story from the novel and funny aspects from Alfred Hitchcock movies. Hitchcock directed one of the adaptations of the 39 Steps. Also, in the play, four characters perform over 100 roles. The costume and set changes add to the humor. The novel has entertaining moments, but not hilarious moments if that makes sense.

  10. Pingback: Unusual suspects: Classic crime in the blogosphere for January and February 2013 | Past Offences

  11. Finally the touring production of the play arrives here next week. i was already looking forward to it but you’ve whetted my apetite even more now 🙂

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