The Thirty-Nine Steps
May 1914. British gentleman Richard Hannay is approached by a stranger who claims that his life is in danger. Before long, Hannay is drawn into a web of intrigue that spreads to Scotland, a sinister spy ring and the war brewing in Europe. Published in 1915, this brisk adventure story launched a trend for page-turning thrillers; its author, Scottish novelist John Buchan, described it as a ‘shocker’. More than just a fun read, however, The Thirty-Nine Steps is also a vivid portrait of Britain at a crucial stage in its history.
The Great War
Though set just before the outbreak of the Great War, The Thirty-Nine Steps was written during it, and the threat of Imperial Germany looms large in the story. The novel was loved by British soldiers fighting in the war, for whom it provided an escape from the gloom of life in the trenches.
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Hannay is a restless soul – one reason why he embarks on his adventure. Yet just as important is his sense of duty to his country. With his education, gentlemanly conduct and willingness to sacrifice himself for the greater good, he is a personification of the British values of his time.
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As you would expect from a spy novel, the plot thrives on mistaken identities. To avoid detection, Hannay disguises himself as a milkman, a fisherman and a road mender. Nor are the people he meets always who they seem to be. This theme would have resonated with readers accustomed to the paranoia of wartime.
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Most of the story’s action takes place around the Scottish borders – especially the Galloway region, where Buchan often holidayed. He describes the countryside in such detail that it becomes something of a character in its own right, its hills and flora providing Hannay with much-needed cover.
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Stories that involve crime, spies and suspense have been around forever. But The Thirty-Nine Steps was an early example of the “man-on-the-run” thriller. It influenced novelists like Graham Greene and John le Carré, as well as countless films (the book itself has been adapted for the screen four times).
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