Last Updated on July 21, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 290
The Thirty-Nine Steps was written by John Buchan and published in the year 1915. The book was subsequently made into a film, with several different adaptations. The novel begins as Richard Hannay has just arrived back in London after an extensive stay in South Africa. Hannay is accustomed to a fast-paced lifestyle and quickly tires of the London scene. Shortly after his return home, he meets a secret agent who believes that Great Britain is on the verge of a war with Germany and warns Hannay to be on the lookout for a group of assassins, collectively known as the Black Stone. The man hides in Hannay's apartment for a while.
Soon after this encounter, the spy is found murdered in Hannay's apartment; the spy has also left a notebook behind. Knowing that he may be implicated in the death of the spy and fearing for his life, Hannay flees London and follows his assassins to Scotland. On the way there, he decodes the spy's notebook and finds out how the Germans plan to launch the attack.
In Scotland, Hannay has several close encounters with the police and Black Stone operatives, but he manages to stay hidden for a time. Finally, the Black Stone thugs catch up with him, but Hannay manages to blast his way out of captivity and return to London to meet with a Foreign Office contact.
Eventually Hannay and the Foreign Officer deduce that the "thirty-nine steps" refers to the number of steps that would need to be taken from a house down to an escape yacht waiting in the harbor. The yacht would then be taken back to Germany by the Black Stone group. Hannay is able to foil the plan, and the Germans are arrested.
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1219
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 at a given signal. The time for invasion is to be determined once the Black Stone has intercepted the French envoy who is coming to London to secure plans for the arrangement of the British fleet. Once the enemy agents know where the ships are, they can see to it that mines are laid in strategic positions to destroy a great portion of the fleet. The only clues Hannay can find in Scudder’s book about the time and place of the enemy operation are references to thirty-nine steps and a high tide at 10:17 p.m.
By luck, Hannay meets a man who has an uncle in an influential position in the government. This man believes Hannay’s story and promises to write to his uncle to ask him to talk to Hannay and help thwart the plot. Hannay travels carefully, for the police and the Black Stone are still pursuing him. Once he is captured by a member of the Black Stone, but he manages to blow up the building in which he is being held and escapes. At last, he reaches his friend’s uncle, Sir Walter, who listens carefully to Hannay’s report. At first Sir Walter is disposed to dismiss Scudder’s story as that of a loyal but overly anxious young man, but when he receives a call informing him that Karolides has been killed, he knows that the information Hannay has given him is correct, and he promises to take the information to the proper authorities.
Although Hannay is not to be allowed to attend the secret conference of government officials, he has the uneasy feeling that his presence there is of the utmost importance and that only he can find out how the highly confidential information about the French envoy’s visit leaked out to the enemy. Against Sir Walter’s orders, Hannay goes to the house where the officials are meeting. As he sits in the hall waiting to be admitted to the meeting room, one of the officials comes out of the room. Hannay realizes that he has seen the man elsewhere, and that the man has recognized him. He bursts into the meeting room and tells the astonished officials that the man who just left is an impostor. They think Hannay mad, for the man who just left is the First Lord of the Admiralty, and everyone knows him well. Then they remember that the man had scanned the drawings and figures carefully and could have memorized them. If he were to leave the country, the whole plan of defense could be in the hands of the enemy. The only hope is to capture him.
There are hundreds of small ports from which a small boat can leave England, but by checking isolated spots along the coast, Hannay finds a small cove where high tide is at 10:17 p.m., and he surmises that there is a house nearby with thirty-nine steps leading down to the cove. Accompanied by police, Hannay locates just such a house, which is occupied by three Englishmen on vacation. Their actions are so natural that he doubts they could be spies. The presence of a fast yacht in the water close to the cove seems suspicious, however, and when Hannay notices the unconscious habit one of the vacationers has of tapping his fingers, he recognizes the man as the enemy agent who had captured him. Hannay and the police are able to capture two of the men. The third escapes to the ship, but as it has already been boarded by English police, he also is caught.
The murder charge that had been brought against Hannay is dropped, and he is safe for the first time in many weeks. Three weeks later, war is declared between England and Germany. The war is not, however, fought on English soil, and no surprise invasion takes place. Hannay enlists in the army, but he knows that he has done his greatest service for his country even before he put on a uniform. The Black Stone is no more, and Scudder’s murder has been avenged.