The Thirty-nine Steps Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Richard Hannay, a mining engineer, has returned to England after having made a modest fortune in South Africa. Before long, he finds that he is very bored with the conversations and actions of the English people he meets. He has almost decided to return to South Africa when a strange series of events begins. One day, as he is unlocking the door of his flat, he is startled by the sudden appearance of Franklin Scudder, another tenant in the building. Scudder, obviously badly frightened, begs Hannay to give him refuge in his flat. Hannay lets him in, and after the two men are settled comfortably, Scudder tells Hannay a fantastic tale. He says that a plot to start a war between England and Germany is under way. The Greek premier, Constantine Karolides, the only really strong leader in Europe, is scheduled to visit London on June 15. The assassination of Karolides during the visit will suffice as an excuse for the declaration of war.

Scudder tells Hannay that the members of a group called the Black Stone are the agents arranging for the assassination. They know that Scudder has learned of their plot, and they have tried several times to kill him. He has planted a body in his flat, hoping that the murderers will think the body his. He asks Hannay to let him stay with him until plans can be made to prevent the assassination.

Impressed by the sincerity with which Scudder tells his story, Hannay gives him sanctuary. Soon after, he returns to his flat one day to find Scudder there dead, a knife through his heart. Hannay knows then that the Black Stone found Scudder and that his own life is in danger. Presumably, the police, too, will want to question Hannay.

When Hannay sees two men strolling back and forth in front of his building, he suspects that they are part of the enemy group. By a ruse, he exchanges clothes with the milkman and leaves his flat, taking with him a little black book in which he had seen Scudder making notes. He is afraid to go to any government office with his fantastic story. His plan is to disappear for the three weeks remaining before June 15 and then, at the last minute, try to get someone in authority to listen to him.

He travels to Scotland, thinking he might be able to hide more easily there. Because the London newspapers have carried the story of Scudder’s murder and a description of Hannay has been circulated, he has several narrow escapes from local Scottish police. The Black Stone has traced him as well. When an airplane, obviously on the lookout for him, flies low over the spot where he has taken refuge, he finds shelter at an inn. The Black Stone finds him there, too, and he is forced to flee again.

In every spare moment, Hannay studies Scudder’s little black book. He deciphers the code that Scudder used and learns that the murder of Karolides is only a small part of the plot. The main plan involves an invasion of England. Airfields are already laid out, and mines have been placed to line the shores...

(The entire section is 1219 words.)