The Thirty-nine Steps by John Buchan

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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.


(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...

(The entire section is 1,509 words.)