The Thirty-nine Steps Essay - Critical Essays

John Buchan

Critical Evaluation

The Thirty-nine Steps is generally recognized as the first authentic spy novel. Although elements of the form are evident in earlier works—adventure tales, chase-and-capture narratives, detective stories, mystery stories, and gothic horror tales—it was John Buchan who established the patterns that became basic to the genre, which developed and flourished in the twentieth century. In an essay on Buchan, novelist Graham Greene singled out the first ingredient in his formula for what Buchan himself called the “shocker”—a formula Greene was to use with considerable success in his own spy novels: “John Buchan was the first to realize the enormous dramatic value of adventure in familiar surroundings happening to unadventurous men.” The average-person-caught-in-a-web-of-intrigue formula proved to be fertile.

Buchan once stated that his own object was to write “romance where the ingredients defy the probabilities and march just inside the borders of the possible.” The Thirty-nine Steps effectively follows that dictum. The hero, Richard Hannay, is believable, and the settings are vivid and realistic, but the situations do “march” very close to the impossible.

Although not deeply characterized, Hannay is colorful and convincing. He is bright, cultured, eager, and resourceful. Once his boredom and curiosity lead him to accept the challenge of strange events and become involved in an intrigue, his patriotism and optimism ensure that he commits himself totally to the cause and that he believes steadfastly in final victory. Furthermore, his experience as a mining engineer on the African veldt realistically accounts for his endurance and adroitness in evading...

(The entire section is 697 words.)