The Thirty-nine Steps by John Buchan

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When John Buchan wrote The Thirty-nine Steps, he could not have imagined that it would revolutionize suspense fiction. The 1915 novel, which first appeared in serial form, has been hailed as the progenitor of espionage fiction, influencing such masters as Ian Fleming and John LeCarré. Buchan combines the more typical convoluted plot of trying to solve one crime and prevent another with the relatable theme of the innocent man falsely accused. Rather than being a detective like Sherlock Holmes who is dedicated to solving crimes, the protagonist, Richard Hannay, is an Everyman who falls into a bizarre situation and then must solve the mystery, both to avert war and to save himself.

A hero like Hannay, whom trouble finds when he least expects it, appeals to varied readers who have found themselves in such predicaments (although world peace was probably rarely at stake). The novel does not aim for psychological depth or social critique.

In addition, Buchan increases the reader’s interest through presenting picturesque settings and interactions with a variety of characters. The suspense builds because the reader, like Hannay, does not know who he can trust. The initial set-up, in which Hannay decides to trust a stranger who is his neighbor, establishes the dominant theme of suspicion and trust.

The novel succeeds primarily as a set of mysteries. It is a whodunit—who killed Hannay’s neighbor Scudder? It is also a spy novel—will Hannay thwart the theft of state secrets? While some mysteries are solved as it goes along, the big questions stay with the reader: Will Hannay escape his pursuers and clear his name? And, finally, what are those thirty-nine steps?

Buchan succeeds largely by combining a complicated plot and interesting settings with a likable protagonist. The reader can find little fault with Hannay, and though his particular situation is far-fetched, it is easy to identify with someone pursued and blamed for something he did not do. Buchan became a pioneer whose original work effectively created a template for subsequent mystery writers, a formula so successful that, for decades, few deviated significantly from it.

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 to carry out their criminal scheme, and Hannay does so in order to save his own life. This irony is not only situational but also dramatic, since Hannay shares his hard-won knowledge with readers. Hence, readers also understand the falsity of appearances.

Seaside housing development

Seaside housing development. Collection of resort villas on the coast of England, presented as typically English. This...

(The entire section is 1,203 words.)