Author: I thought I would include a few facts about John Buchan, since he is such an interesting guy and it really does add to the story if you know a little about where he was coming from. The first thing that you need to know about him is that he LOVED the Empire. He was a Scottish man who went down to live in London, spent some time in South Africa, and would later in life become the first baron of Tweedsmuir. This novel was published in 1915, just after the outbreak of WWI. Buchan, 39 years old at the time and in ill health, was absolutely green with envy over all the young men who had the chance to go out there and gloriously die for their country. He considered The 39 Steps his contribution to the war effort. He would later go on to work for the Intelligence Corps of the British Army and reach great success as a war propagandist. He essentially invented the spy thriller.
Summary: Richard Hannay, a Scottish man who has recently returned to London after living in South Africa for most of his adult life, is bored and uneasy with his life - until a mysterious stranger urgently approaches him for sanctuary and reveals to him a spy conspiracy that would devastate Britain. Hannay finds himself caught up in an epic chase, pursued across the wild Scottish Lowlands by the police and sprawling network of nefarious spies. This is a tale of paranoia and disguises, identity and cunning, in which "all that separates civilization from barbarism...is a thread, a pane of glass. A touch here, a push there, and you bring back the reign of Saturn."
Review: I loved this book. I gobbled it all up in practically one sitting - I have always had a soft spot for all things involving spies. Hannay is SUCH a fun protagonist. He is the quintessential action hero - a lonely, loyal man of few words and strange talents, with the drive necessary to do what is right in a dangerous and unasked-for situation. His disguises and evasions, the gleeful chase across the moors, never get old. That is perhaps the best aspect of this book - not a wasted second. Everything that Buchan is necessary to bring us to the thrilling conclusion.
In addition to being a good spy romp with all the appropriate ciphers and body count and explosions (yes, explosions), The Thirty-Nine Steps holds its own as a piece of literature. We were reading this novel in my Scottish fiction class to examine the portrayal of Scotland by a man who left it to live in England, which is an interesting enough lens to approach the novel with, if you care. What I found the most compelling was Buchan's obsession with performance and disguise. Hannay slowly loses his ability to trust anyone, no matter how innocent their appearance, for fear of what they may be hiding underneath. His paranoia, and his isolation and discomfort from normal social interactions, are what makes the novel memorable.
This is an intensely psychological thriller. The main struggles, the battles that catch our attention, are battles of deception and determination. Hannay is thrown about, left vulnerable in the open world with only his wits to protect him. But don't worry - he has plenty of wits to go on. ♥
Quotations: "If you're going to be killed you invent some kind of flag and country to fight for, and if you survive you get to love the thing."
"I remember an old scout in Rhodesia, who had done many queer things in his day, once telling me that the secret of playing a part was to think yourself into it. You could never keep it up, he said, unless you could manage to convince yourself that you were it."
"Contrary to popular belief, I was not a murderer, but I had become an unholy liar, a shameless impostor, and a highway-man with a marked taste for expensive motor-cars."