One-Minute Book Reviews

May 13, 2008

John Buchan’s ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps’ Stands Up to Hitchcock

John Buchan’s classic suspense novel helped set the tone for nearly a century of spy fiction

The Thirty-Nine Steps. By John Buchan. Introduction by John Keegan. Penguin Classics, 144 pp., $9, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Anybody who knows The Thirty-Nine Steps only from Alfred Hitchock’s movie is missing a treat.

That film – good as it is — takes liberties with John Buchan’s plot that are as wild as the Scottish moors on which its hero finds himself hunted by his enemies. So no matter how many times you’ve seen Robert Donat handcuffed to Madeleine Carroll, it won’t spoil a reading of the novel. With good reason, Buchan called the book one of his “shockers,” or stories that set personal dramas against tense political realities.

Part of the allure of The Thirty-Nine Steps is that by the standards of today’s spy novels and movies, it is as sleek as a stiletto. It has none of the bloviating of John le Carré’s most recent books or the logic-defying plot twists of Mission Impossible. Buchan is a storyteller in the tradition of his fellow Scot and contemporary Arthur Conan Doyle – he tells you exactly what you need to know to understand his tale and nothing more.

The Thirty-Nine Steps is the first of his five novels about Richard Hannay, a 37-year-old Scottish-born engineer and patriot and with a thirst for adventure. Hannay has returned from years in Rhodesia and found himself bored with England. (“It struck me that Albania was the sort of place that might keep a man from yawning.”) His boredom evaporates when he agrees to shelter a spy who has learned of a secret German plan to invade England.

When the man is murdered, Hannay flees to the Scotland, where he hopes to lie low for a while amid the remote glens and moors. There he is hunted both by the British police who consider him a suspect and the Germans who have killed the spy. After being spotted from an airplane, Hannay tries to elude his pursuers by donning a series of disguises and traveling by foot, bicycle and train through Scotland. To save himself, he must find a way to warn the British government what he has learned from the murdered spy.

First published in 1915, The Thirty-Nine Steps was one of the first novels to include many of the elements of the modern thriller, such as car chases and aerial surveillance. And along with all the action, the novel has astute psychological insights. For all of his reliance on outer disguises, Hannay knows that they are nowhere near as important to crime as the inner ability to play a role. “A fool tries to look different: a clever man looks the same but is different,” he observes. He adds, “If you are playing a part, you will never keep it up unless you convince yourself that you are it.” Much of The Thirty-Nine Steps turns on this observation, and it suggests a psychological truth that has shaped suspense novels ever since: The dangers posed by people who are hiding in plain sight — and playing their part well enough to need no disguises — can be far more terrifying than those raised by criminals who wear ski masks on the deserted streets we know enough to avoid.

Best line: “My guest was lying sprawled on his back. There was a long knife through his heart which skewered him to the floor.”

Worst line: “ Mors janua vitae,’ he smiled.” The problem isn’t the use of the Latin for “death is the gate of life” – it’s the “he smiled.”

Movie Links: Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 version with Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll; Ralph Thomas’s 1959 version; Don Sharp’s 1978 version

Published: 1915 (first edition) and May 2008 (latest Penguin Classics edition). The 2008 Penguin edition has an introduction by the distinguished military historian John Keegan (which should be interesting, given that such prefaces are typically written by scholars of literature instead of history, but I haven’t seen it).

Furthermore: The Thirty-Nine Steps is typically described as a novel but is short enough that it might be more properly called a novella.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


  1. Excellent review, makes me want to re-read the book for the nth time. One minor correction – in the novel Hannay doesn’t flee to the Scottish Highlands but to the moors of Galloway. Hitchcock of course transposed the setting to the Highlands.


    Comment by briandosborne — May 14, 2008 @ 3:28 pm | Reply

  2. Brian: A thousand thanks. I’m so glad you gave me a chance to correct that before my Scottish relatives saw it, which might have led to a lot of ribbing at a reunion.

    In general, I try to avoid seeing film versions of novels before I’ve read the books, partly because it’s so easy to conflate the two. This was one of the cases in which I saw the movie first. And it may have implanted itself a little too deeply in my mind.

    If you ever have a chance to read the Keegan intro to the latest edition, I’d love to know how it is. I couldn’t bring myself to buy it, given that so many good older editions are available for free libraries. But I’d bet it’s interesting.


    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — May 14, 2008 @ 5:01 pm | Reply

  3. Thanks for the great review. Of the Hannay series, I think that “Greenmantle” may be my favorite. All are good, and especially so as Hannay ages through the years as the series goes along. John Buchan was quite a guy, given his fiction, non-fiction (history) and his political work, particularly in Canada.

    Have you read any Talbot Mundy? As Buchan was a gentleman, Mundy was a skunk, but most of what I know about the Middle East I have learned from his series. Both great authors, but different styles.

    Comment by Bob — May 24, 2008 @ 11:22 pm | Reply

  4. I haven’t read any other books in the Hannay series (or Talbot Monday). But it’s great to know that Buchan maintains the quality of the series as Hannay gets older. In spy fiction, novelists so often seem to run out of gas after a few books. The contrast between le Carre’s early and late work is dramatic.

    Thanks so much for steering visitors to this site to other good books. Your timing was perfect with so many people looking for good summer reading. I’d love to take a look at “Greenmantle.”

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — May 25, 2008 @ 6:54 am | Reply

  5. […] Scottish-born engineer who became a prototype for generations of adventurous patriots. In The Thirty-Nine Steps Hannary shelters a spy who has learned of a secret German plan to invade England and, when the man […]

    Pingback by Great Books About Scotland — A St. Andrew’s Day Celebration « One-Minute Book Reviews — November 30, 2009 @ 1:03 am | Reply

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