Review: The Thirty Nine Steps – John Buchan

The Thirty Nine Steps John Buchan Vintage cover

Series: Richard Hannay 1

My version: Paperback
Genre: Fiction Spies, Britain
First published: 1915

From the cover:

May 1914. Britain is on the eve of war with Germany. Richard Hannay is living a quiet life in London, but after a chance encounter with a mysterious stranger, he stumbles into a hair-raising adventure – a desperate hunt across the country and against the clock, pursured by the Police and a cunning, ruthless enemy. Hannay’s life and the security of Britain are in grave peril, everything rests on the solution to a baffling enigma: What are The Thirty Nine Steps?

Who hasn’t seen the film of The 39 Steps? You? Oh well, let me explain…Well, first off, forget the film. The book is what the film is based on, rather than them filming the book. If you get my meaning. I’m not going to go as far as saying the book is better, just to be a pain, it probably depends on which you saw/read first and if you think the ending of the film is the way the meaning of The Thirty Nine Steps should be revealed.

The Speesh Reads Fact Dept in the dirty mackintosh, smoking a Strand under a streetlight, report: When the book has been filmed (several times), the title has often been abbreviated to ‘The 39 Steps.’ The longer ‘The Thirty Nine Steps,’ was used for the original book and for an adaption filmed in 1978.

The 39 Steps 1935 British poster

The book was first published in 1915, so while the First World War was on (written the year before). Maybe, a little like the Erskine Childers The Riddle of the Sands, as a way of both entertaining and warning people to be on their guard for a possible coming war. The film, from 1935, as I remember, is more a warning about Germany (again) and being on guard, hiding secrets etc – seen from today, its warnings are pertinent for the outbreak of the Second World War.

The hero, Richard Hannay, is recently returned to Britain from a stay in Rhodesia, as it was, Zimbabwe to you nowadays (I’m old enough to remember it being Rhodesia). Unfortunately, Hannay isn’t much impressed with the Britain he returns to, perhaps that can be understood, it happens. It is otherwise, a most positive book, and that’s not just for the gung-ho tone of some of it and not just for the “don’t they realise we’re British?!” tone of a lot of it. It was, I think I’m right in saying, written as a way of showing that the average man in the street could do something to help the war effort, just by keeping vigilant – and looking out for spies, of course. Though, as Hannay has just come back from a time in Rhodesia and returned to his London flat, how ‘average’ the 1st Baron Tweedsmuir, GCMG, GCVO, CH, PC, imagined his creation, was, I wouldn’t like to say. The book was first published as a serial in a weekly news-type periodical, so that may have been an effort to reach the average Joe, though they sure didn’t have a right lot of ‘disposable cash’ to buy books (or weekly periodicals, I imagine) in those days. It was published in book form a month or two later.

Classic The Thirty Nine Steps John Buchan
The classic cover, if you ask me

What does grate to our modern ears/eyes, are some of the opinions (at least a couple of those expressed early in the book), perhaps as a result of being out there in pre-Black rule Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, but maybe were commonly held at the time and thought nothing of, however, definitely not PC nowadays. It grates, but, if you’re willing to overlook its awkwardness and see the whole picture, the whole book, not a deal-breaker. What ensues is, as they say, a rattling good read. One of the first, as I understand it, ‘innocent man on the run’ thrillers. I read it because it featured in my ‘Best ever Spy Books ever’ list, and it is actually involving spies, but it’s also a glimpse at a period of British social history long gone, long forgotten, quaint but well worth re-visiting.

You can buy The Thirty Nine Steps from

While you’re here – why not check out the EXCLUSIVE Speesh Reads Pinterest board thingy for The Thirty Nine Steps! It’s a thingy of beauty

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.