The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

Confident and capable heroes sprint through John Buchan’s action-packed novels.  If you’ve never read any of Buchan’s work, this first of his novels about Richard Hannay is a great starting gate.

In the introduction to The Thirty-Nine Steps, Robin W. Winks writes that the book is “often said to have established the basic formula for the spy (or conspiracy) thriller” and that it shows “the formula at its most pure.” 

Take an attractive man, not too young–Hannay is thirty-seven in Steps, two years younger than Buchan when he began to write the book–and not too old, since he must have the knowledge of maturity and substantial experience on which he will draw while being able to respond to the physical rigors of chase and pursuit. Let the hero, who appears at first to be relatively ordinary, and who thinks of himself as commonplace, be drawn against his best judgment into a mystery he only vaguely comprehends, so that he and the reader may share the growing tension together. Set him a task to perform: to get the secret plans, let us say, from point A to point B, or to bring the news from Ghent to Aix. Place obstacles in his path–the enemy, best left as ill-defined as possible, so that our hero cannot be certain who he might trust. See to it that he cannot turn to established authority for help, indeed that the police, the military, the establishment will be actively working against him.

Then set a clock ticking: the hero must bet from point A to point B in a sharply defined time, a time-frame known to both pursuer and pursued.

John Buchan’s novels reflect only a small facet of his prolific writing career, which spanned a wide range of fiction, nonfiction, and biography. He maintained his writing career simultaneously with an illustrious diplomatic and governmental career that included serving from 1935-1940 as Canada’s Governor General, after being elevated to the peerage as 1st Baron the Lord Tweedsmuir. You can read more about John Buchan/Lord Tweedsmuir here. And you can order The Thirty-Nine Steps here.

I recently read The Thirty-Nine Steps for the second time and was struck with Buchan’s literary skill as well as his ability to craft heart-stopping action scenes.

Since one of my favorite characters in his Hannay novels is Sandy Arbuthnot, I was surprised to find a character named Freddy Arbuthnot when I subsequently picked up for the second reading Thrones, Dominations a novel begun by Dorothy L. Sayers and finished by Jill Paton Walsh.

Are the names of those two characters sheer coincidence? I’d like to know if Sayers or Walsh chose that character’s name and if he’s related to Buchan’s suave spy.


3 thoughts on “The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

  1. The 39 Steps is one of the truly great novels in the spy / thriller genre; Alfred Hitchcock made it into a movie, though the book and the movie might as well be considered two different stories (both good). Buchan gives us more of Hannay in “Greenmantle,” a gripping novel which presents actual events in the months leading to World War I.

    I highly recommend a very reasonably priced hardcover edition which includes both novels, available here, but both are also available in electronic form at no cost for the Kindle, Nook or other devices.

  2. Also a Buchan aficionado! I picked up many of his books in NZ in thrift stores. I also love the Hannay series on dvd. Blessings, Leo dV

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