Saturday, April 2, 2016

The Thirty-Nine Steps [1915]

Written by Scottish author John Buchan while recuperating from a bout of ulcer, The Thirty-Nine Steps was one of the earliest books to popularize the theme of ‘innocent man on the run’. Published just after the outbreak of WWI, the smart timing, coupled with its break-neck pacing and championing of good-old British patriotism, made this a smashing hit. Hitchcock was so taken by its central tenet – a man, accused of a crime he hasn’t committed, being forced to go on the lam as he’s chased by the police as well as the bad guys – that he adapted it into cinema in 1935 which won him his first great commercial success, and then made the theme his own in a number of subsequent films, most notably North by Northwest (the spectacular airplane sequence seems ‘been there done that’ once one has read this book). Richard Hannay, in his first of five appearances, is an expat Scot who has returned home after a long-stay in Rhodesia, and is experiencing a severe bout of boredom whiling his time in his flat in London. His tranquil life, however, goes for a toss, when a Brit spy named Scudder is murdered in his apartment, but not before revealing an elaborate plan hatched by German anarchists that can potentially prove catastrophic for his country. He realizes that all circumstantial evidences point towards him, and more importantly, he’s also burdened with taking the secret to its logical conclusion; therefore what ensues is a sprawling chase sequence from the bustling metropolis of London to the idyllic Scottish moors and back. Such has been the book’s enduring appeal, despite its over-reliance on deus ex machina and the protagonist’s rather implausible ability to get out of sticky situations, that it went on to influence such diverse authors as Ian Fleming and Graham Greene, and has become something of an icon in Britain. Logical inconsistencies aside, the deadpan humour, thrill-a-minute developments, sparse narrative style, and great evocation of the Scottish landscapes, made this a breezy, engaging read.

Author: John Buchan
Genre: Thriller/Spy Thriller/Adventure Novel
Language: English
Country: UK

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