Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books

The Thirty-Nine Steps


John Buchan describes his 1915 breakout novel, The Thirty-Nine Steps, as a ‘shocker’ – “where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible.” (dedication)

His description is dead on. The novel is a romp.

June 1914. Richard Hannay, a Scottish mining engineer has just returned to London after living for 30 years in South Africa (Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe). He encounters a mysterious American spy who is suddenly murdered. Hannay goes on the run, carrying the dead man’s secrets about a German spy ring and in fear of being accused of the murder. Both sides are after him. 

Hannay acts with sketchy rationale. The situations are barely believable. The coincidences are contrived. At every turn, you wonder “what is he thinking???” But it’s all great escapist fun.

Buchan spent the war years working in the War Propaganda Bureau (Wellington House) and the Intelligence Office. Did his day job influence his novels, or did his imagination feed both:

I never heard anything like it. … It was the most appalling rot, too. He talked about the ‘German menace,’ and said it was all a Tory invention to cheat the poor of their rights and keep back the great flood of social reform, but that ‘organized labour’ realised this and laughed the Tories to scorn. … He said that, but for the Tories, Germany and Britain would be fellow-workers in peace and reform. (p 53)

The Thirty-Nine Steps is the first book in Buchan’s series of thrillers featuring Hannay’s adventures. The novel has been adapted many times for screen and stage. I’ve seen the 1935 Hitchcock movie and the recent theatre spoof that has played for years in London and New York. Both highly entertaining in their own way, but only loosely based on the antics in the novel. All three are worth the time.

Canadian connection … besides the reference to Vancouver in the novel and Hannay being transformed to a Canadian in the Hitchcock film and stage play. In 1935, Buchan was named Lord Tweedsmuir and became Governor General of Canada. One of his lasting legacies is the Governor General’s Literary Awards.


Author: greatwar100reads

Canadian crusader for equality and justice. Connoisseur and creator of the written word. Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books and monuments. Read more at

3 thoughts on “The Thirty-Nine Steps

  1. I’ve seen the Hitchcock film, but never read the novel. Now knowing it is meant as a romp, I want to get my hands on the book so as to experience the author’s intent. Thanks for your posts this year, for helping us remember those who lost their lives in the Great War. Understanding the past is vital, I think. Merry Christmas and best wishes for 2015.

    • I’ll be interested to know your views of the book. Hitchcock used it as a jumping-off point for his own ideas of innocent-man-on-the-run. Thank you for your support of my modest project. I enjoy our exchanges. All the best for 2015.

  2. Pingback: Monday Monuments and Memorials – Memorial Window, St. Andrew’s Church, Ottawa, ON | Great War 100 Reads

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.