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.