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 capture as well as his skill in exploding his way out of danger.
The settings, too, are scrupulously accurate. Buchan used locations he knew personally, and many of the sites, including the real thirty-nine steps, were important to him. Not only is Hannay’s escape route geographically possible but, more important, Buchan also creates a realistic atmosphere that gives the adventure immediacy.
Although the characters and settings of The Thirty-nine Steps are realistic, the plot moves perilously between the possible and the fantastic. The essence of the thriller is the chase, and while the heroes or heroines of thrillers may not begin as hunters, they soon become the hunted, frequently with both the established authorities and the villains in pursuit. Hannay is chased almost from the beginning and, despite several close calls, avoids capture by using several devices that were to become the stock-in-trade of the genre: disguise (a milkman, a political speaker, a rural “road-man”), physical concealment, and plain good luck (one does not look too closely at “coincidence” in the thriller).
In The Thirty-nine Steps , Buchan also introduces the false rescue scene, an element that later became central to many intrigue novels: When the hero has...
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