Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Scotland. Numerous rural locations in the lowlands of Scotland, including small towns, farms, country houses, and open fields, figure into this spy story. Through most of the novel, the inhabitants of these locations are shown going about their customary lives, ignorant of the secret assassination plot that drives the action. Thus, the characters complain about self-important railway employees, discuss price fluctuations in the cattle markets, and sleep off hangovers, in ironic contrast to protagonist Richard Hannay, who is trying to hide himself from foreign agents.

Hannay, a moderately wealthy South African, takes an undercover tour of this placid setting and comes to know Scotland as a place of great, though subtle, beauty. The rural people with whom he interacts are distrustful of strangers but generous to a fault, especially to those down on their luck. The positive representations of the Scottish people and of Scotland reflect John Buchan’s own Scottish upbringing.

More important from the point of view of the novel, the peaceful country and virtuous inhabitants are used to emphasize the familiar espionage contrast between hidden dangers and surface placidity. Like many other spy novels, this one uses setting as theme, and appearances are deceiving. In fact, the Scottish setting allows for a two-fold incorporation of this theme since both the assassins and Hannay go under cover. The assassins do so in order...

(The entire section is 572 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Cawelti, John G., and Bruce A. Rosenberg. The Spy Story. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987. In what is probably the best overall analysis of Buchan’s spy novels, the authors praise The Thirty-nine Steps as his most completely successful book and examine its connections to John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678).

Daniell, David. The Interpreter’s House: A Critical Assessment of John Buchan. London: Thomas Nelson, 1975. A full-length assessment of all of Buchan’s writing, both nonfiction and fiction. Focuses on the earlier, lesser-known works, but also contains a fine analysis of his spy and adventure fiction.

MacGlone, James M. “The Printed Texts of John Buchan’s The Thirty-nine Steps, 1915-1940.” The Bibliotheck: A Scottish Journal of Bibliography and Allied Topics 13 (1986): 9-24. MacGlone’s exhaustive study of the printed texts of The Thirty-nine Steps traces the varying stages of the novel’s development.

Panek, LeRoy L. The Special Branch: The British Spy Novel, 1890-1980. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1981. Traces the origins of Buchan’s spy novels to the earlier books of Edgar Wallace, E. Phillips Oppenheim, and William Le Queux and to the development of espionage fiction during the late nineteenth century.

Smith, Janet Adam. John Buchan: A Biography. Boston: Little, Brown, 1965. A comprehensive biography that traces the many interests of this multifaceted man. This volume is well illustrated and contains a good checklist of Buchan’s works.

Winks, Robin. “John Buchan: Stalking the Wilder Game.” In The Four Adventures of Richard Hannay, by John Buchan. Boston: David R. Godine, 1988. Attempts to dispel concerns over the racism, sexism, jingoism, and anti-Semitism that Buchan’s spy novels contain. Includes a listing of libraries with holdings of Buchan’s papers.