The Thirty-Nine Steps is something of a thriller written in 1915. It is about a young man, Richard Hannay, who comes to England from his life in South Africa, with money and bored. One day, as he arrives home, he is met by a man who has a fantastic story about the proposed assassination of a world figure that will set off a major war, and only he, the stranger, can stop it, because he knows all the details. Our protagonist allows him to hide out in his apartment, but comes home to find him stabbed to death. He locates the little black book that the stranger had been scribbling in, and set off himself to finish the job of the murdered man.
OK, it was all kind of hokey, and never felt quite like today’s thrillers, especially because providential things kept happening to save his bacon after the unlikely events happened to put his bacon in danger.
The title of the book comes from the location where the baddies are to meet the boat that will take them out of England. Apparently, on some seacliffs, there are a number of stairs cut into the rock leading down to the river. And one set has 39 steps, which is where the boat is to be met.
Buchan’s son later wrote that the name of the book originated when the author’s daughter was counting the stairs at a private nursing home where Buchan was convalescing. “There was a wooden staircase leading down to the beach. My sister, who was about six, and who had just learnt to count properly, went down them and gleefully announced: there are 39 steps.” Some time later the house was demolished and a section of the stairs, complete with a brass plaque, was sent to Buchan.
This book is considered to be one of the earliest examples of the ‘man-on-the-run’ thriller archetype. Richard Hannay is supposed to be an example to his readers of an ordinary man who puts his country’s interests before his own safety. However, I found it more that he was doing what he was doing because it was an adventure and he had been bored, not so much because he wanted to serve his country in some way.
There have been a number of film adaptations of the book, I think six of them, the first was in 1935, and the latest was 2008, when it was made into a TV drama by the BBC.
There are five volumes in the series about Hennay. I have two more in my digital possession, and will try the next in the series to see how it goes. The first was a quick and easy read, good for a pre-bedtime read when the mind is not awake enough to digest anything heavier.