John Buchan Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

John Buchan was already known as a political figure, biographer, and historian when he published his first “shocker,” as he called it, The Thirty-nine Steps, in 1915. It is not surprising, then, that he chose to have the tale appear anonymously in its serial form in Blackwoods magazine. Extravagant praise from friends and the general public, however, caused him to claim the work when it later appeared in book form.

The Thirty-nine Steps

The Thirty-nine Steps was not truly a sudden departure for Buchan. Perhaps the recognition the book received helped him to realize the extent to which this shocker formed a part of much of his earlier work; he had planned it with the same care accorded to all of his writings. In 1914, he told his wife that his reading of detective stories had made him want to try his hand at the genre: “I should like to write a story of this sort and take real pains with it. Most detective story-writers don’t take half enough trouble with their characters, and no one cares what becomes of either corpse or murderer.”

An illness that prevented Buchan’s enlistment in the early days of the war allowed him to act on this interest, and The Thirty-nine Steps came into being. The popularity of the book with soldiers in the trenches convinced the ever-Calvinist Buchan that producing such entertainments was congruent with duty. The book’s popularity was not limited to soldiers or to wartime, however, and its hero, Richard Hannay, quickly made a home in the imagination of readers everywhere.

An energetic, resourceful South African of Scots descent, Hannay has come to London to see the old country. He finds himself immensely bored until one evening, when a stranger named Scudder appears and confides to Hannay some information regarding national security. The stranger is soon murdered, and Hannay, accused of the killing, must run from the police and decipher Scudder’s enigmatic codebook, all the while avoiding Scudder’s killers and the police. Hannay soon realizes that Scudder’s secret concerns a German invasion, which now only he can prevent.

Some critics have observed that various plot elements make this tale go beyond the “borders of the possible,” which Buchan declared he had tried to avoid. In spite of negative criticism, The Thirty-nine Steps won immediate popularity and remains a durable, beloved work of fiction. Its popularity stems from several sources, not the least of which is the nature of its hero. Hannay, as the reader first sees him, is a modest man of no particular attainments. Only as he masters crisis after crisis does the reader discover his virtues.

In a later book, Hannay says that his son possesses traits he values most: He is “truthful and plucky and kindly.” Hannay himself has these characteristics, along with cleverness and experience as an engineer and South African trekker. His innate virtues, in addition to his background, make him a preeminently solid individual, one whom Britons, in the dark days of 1915, took to heart. Hannay’s prewar victory over the Germans seemed prophetic.

Part of Hannay’s appeal in The Thirty-nine Steps is outside the character himself, created by his role as an innocent bystander thrust into the heart of a mystery. It was perhaps this aspect of the novel that appealed to Alfred Hitchcock, whose 1935 film of the novel is often ranked with his greatest works. One of Hitchcock’s favorite devices is the reaction of the innocent man or woman accused of murder, a premise he used in films such as North by Northwest (1959) and Saboteur (1942), among others. Yet little of Buchan’s hero survives in Hitchcock’s treatment: The great director’s Hannay is a smooth, articulate ladies’ man, and Scudder is transformed into a female spy.

Women are completely absent from Buchan’s novel. In Hannay’s next adventure, Greenmantle (1916), a woman is admitted to the cast of characters, but only as an archvillainess. In the third volume of the series, Mr. Standfast (1919), a heroine, Mary Lamingham, finally appears. She is repeatedly described as looking like a small child or “an athletic boy,” and she is also a spy—in fact, she is Hannay’s superior. (Hannay’s successes in forestalling the German invasion have resulted in his becoming an occasional British agent.) The Three Hostages (1924) finds them married, but Mary is not oppressed by domestic life. She disguises herself and takes an active role in solving the kidnapping that actuates that novel.

Buchan allows Hannay to change through the years in his experiences, if not in his character. In The Thirty-nine Steps, he is alone in his adventures, his only comradeship found in his memory of South African friends and in his loyalty to the dead Scudder. As his history continues, he acquires not only a wife and son but also a circle of friends who share his further wartime espionage activities. Peter Pienaar, an older Boer trekker, joins the war effort, aiding Hannay with his fatherly advice. John Blenkiron, a rather comical American industrialist, is enlisted in Greenmantle and Mr. Standfast to help befuddle the Germans. One of Buchan’s favorite devices is the “hide in plain sight” idea, which Blenkiron practices. He moves among the Germans freely, trusting that they will not recognize him as a pro-British agent.


(The entire section is 2249 words.)