Last 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!