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John Buchan’s 1915 espionage novel The Thirty-Nine Steps, was written during the early phase of the Great War, which would become known as World War I, and is told from the perspective of the story’s narrator, a Scot formerly residing in the British colony of Rhodesia in southern Africa (today’s Zimbabwe) who, upon relocating to London, finds himself caught up in a conspiracy by a group of German spies to assassinate the Greek premier, Karolides, about whom the narrator, Richard Hannay, holds in high esteem, in contrast to other prominent national leaders and diplomats, a sentiment reflected in the following passage from early in Buchan’s novel:
“I rather fancied the chap. From all accounts he seemed the one big man in the show; and he played a straight game too, which was more than could be said for most of them. I gathered that they hated him pretty blackly in Berlin and Vienna, but that we were going to stick by him, and one paper said that he was the only barrier between Europe and Armageddon.”
Hannah is an unemployed former expatriate whose involvement in the events portrayed in the novel are significant for their representation of the proverbial ordinary individual thrust into extraordinary circumstances, a favorite theme of British film director Alfred Hitchcock, who would twice adapt Buchan’s story for the screen.
The pivotal event that propels the story is Hannay’s chance encounter with Franklin Scudder, an American claiming to be a spy himself, whose death leaves Hannay in possession of notes that include the title phrase:
“The bare bones of the tale were all that were in the book – these, and one queer phrase which occurred a half-a-dozen times inside brackets. ‘(Thirty-nine steps)’ was the phrase; and at its last time, of use it ran ‘(Thirty-nine steps, I counted them: high tide 10.17 p.m.)’ I could make nothing of that.”
The Thirty-Nine Steps follows Hannay as he eludes his pursuers, the aforementioned German spies, encountering a number of interesting individuals along the way, some of whom turn out to be involved in the plot to assassinate Karolides, others being ordinary citizens who agree to help the protagonist as he attempts to prevent the conspiracy from succeeding. While that effort is ultimately unsuccessful, the novel ends, with Hannay, having correctly determined that the phrase “thirty-nine steps” refers to a specific landing dock on the British coast where the German spies will sneak out of Britian, exacting his own form of justice on the agents. The spies had been more than assassins; they were intent on discovering as much as they could about British war plans no that Europe as dividing along lines. In so doing, he discovers that the old man whom he had viewed as a savior earlier in the story (specifically, in Chapter Six) is, in fact, the leader of the German agents. Near the novel’s end, as Hannay confronts the Germans, he reflects on the deception to which he had fallen victim. Referring to that kindly old gentleman who provided him shelter in his time of need, Hannay describes that same individual, now shorn of his facade:
“But the old man was the pick of the lot. He was sheer brain, icy, cool, calculating, as ruthless as a steam hammer. Now that my eyes were opened I wondered where I had seen the benevolence. His jaw was like chilled steel, and his eyes had the inhuman luminosity of a bird’s.”
Hannay may not have been the most admirable of individuals when he is first introduced, but he is a patriot intent on helping his country. By turning his role of pursued into that of pursuer, and helping corner the Germans, Hannay has proven himself heroic.
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