Title: The Thirty-Nine Steps
Author: John Buchan
Buchan, John (1915, 1935). The Thirty-Nine Steps. London: W. Blackwood & sons
- Hannay, Richard (Fictitious character)–Fiction.
- World War, 1914-1918–Fiction.
- Intelligence service–Fiction.
- Great Britain–Fiction.
Date Updated: March 23, 2017
Nigel West developed a list of the best spy movies. This is one of the better ones of the best, based on a superb book by John Buchan. At least three versions of this film have been made, the first by Alfred Hitchcock in 1935.
Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) is vacationing in England when he gets caught in a web of mystery in this Hitchcock thriller. Shots ring out at a show, and a terrified woman (Lucie Mannheim) begs Hannay to help her. He’s certain she’s crazy—until she appears at his flat with a map in hand and a knife in her back, muttering something about 39 steps.
Eluding the police, Hannay travels through Scotland to unearth the truth. The mysterious 39 steps turns out to be an organization of spies stealing the secrets of Britain’s Air Ministry for a new airplane. The Hitchcock movie has been rated as the 21st best all-time British movies. The 1978 movie is American, starring Robert Powell as Richard Hannay. In 2008 it was reissued with Rupert Penry-Jones as Richard Hannay. Hannay has his holiday interrupted when secret agent Scudder (Eddie Marsan) bursts into his apartment, staying alive just long enough to deposit a notebook. Pegged with murder, Hannay must decode the book and nab the culprits—before they find him first. In this nimble BBC update of John Buchan’s novel, German spies and British police give chase as Hannay races to deliver the coveted code and avert a world war.
First published in 1915, The Thirty-Nine Steps is John Buchan’s first book in which Richard Hannay has one of his many adventures. A more recent edition (2004) is part of Penguin’s Great Books for Boys collection, which focuses on celebrating the adventurer within every boy. It’s not just boys who have an inner adventurer. The series, whether you’re young or old, male or female, will appeal to those who enjoy a thrilling edge-of-your-seat read.
Set just four weeks before World War I, The Thirty-Nine Steps is the story of Richard Hannay and his entanglement with international spies and a German plot to steal British military secrets. He is bored with London life and is considering moving on when he meets his seemingly normal upstairs neighbor. The man, who begs to be let into his apartment, soon tells a tale too grand to be a lie.
He is an American spy with knowledge of an assassination to take place on June 15th and that will rock Europe. Upon hearing the truth in the man’s words, Richard decides to help him. When he arrives home one evening to discover the spy’s body with a knife sticking through the heart, Richard realizes how entangled he has become. With one man murdered and the killers after him, Richard decides to run – and stay on the run until the 15th comes around so he can try to prevent the murder of another innocent man.
Through the wilds of Scotland, Richard is chased by a dark, unknown enemy, as well as his own country’s police. Between frantic chase scenes and thrilling escapes, Richard tries to unlock the secrets held in the murdered American spy’s diary. The diary is the key to it all, and Richard could save the day if only he could discover what “the thirty-nine steps” means before it’s too late.
One of the things I loved so much about this book was the feel for the era. It helps that it was written about the time the novel took place. I just don’t think, no matter how meticulously you do your research, that a modern author could have hit the same chords or achieved the same feeling. From the language and settings to the places and people, The Thirty-Nine Steps, both the book and the Hitchcock move, is perfect entertainment.
The book is short, just 160 pages, and you’ll want to read it all in one go. From the moment you first meet Richard as he becomes embroiled in a plot that covers nations, you just can’t put the book down. Honestly, why would you want to?