The Thirty-Nine Steps

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The 39 Steps (Richard Hannay, #1)The 39 Steps by John Buchan
Published: 1915
Narrated by: David Thorn
Series: Richard Hannay #1
Length: 04:10 (100 pages)

I think I first heard of this while browsing lists of classic Scottish literature. It’s referred to as one of the earliest spy novels, a man-on-the-run thriller really, in which an ordinary man finds himself wrapped up in an international conspiracy with his country’s safety on the line. This is the first in half a dozen novels featuring Richard Hannay, and it’s been adapted to film multiple times (none of which I’ve seen), the earliest being a Hitchcock film from 1935. It looks like a new adaptation is in the works as well, due out in 2018.

This is a very short novel, and even at this length I felt it drag on in parts. It begins just before World War I in 1914 with Richard Hannay arriving in London after working in Rhodesia for many years. He’s incredibly bored with this new life, so when a stranger with a crazy story begs for his help, he takes the time to listen to him and provide him a place to stay where a busier man may have just moved on. The man claims to have uncovered a plot to assassinate the Greek premier during his upcoming stay in London, with the goal to destabilize the continent in the wake of war. Those chasing him soon turn their attention to Hannay, and he runs north to Scotland with these anarchists in pursuit.

The rest of the story is Richard Hannay sneaking through bushes, being chased through Scottish moors, disguising himself in working class clothing, and participating in some fairly implausible events. I did enjoy Buchan’s writing, which was the saviour here, but this wasn’t the most thrilling thriller I’ve read. It feels like its longevity is largely due to it defining a new genre and it having been adapted into a well-loved Hitchcock film.

At this point, I don’t think I’ll carry on with the series, although I am intrigued. I may let myself be convinced to read further in the future.

2 thoughts on “The Thirty-Nine Steps

  1. Ruthiella

    I think I would like to read this some day but as you say, more for the sake of appreciating its place in defining the genre.

    I sometimes wish I could go back in time and read all the books in the “right” order…starting with The Epic of Gilgamesh, you know? Ha ha.

    1. Rob Post author

      Haha,yes! I often think about how different an experience it would be to read these books as they were published, especially those novels that went on to inspire so many authors.


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