Last week it was the centenary of the first book publication of John Buchan‘s The Thirty-Nine Styeps.
Buchan’s book about a single man – Richard Hannay – on the run from both unknown enemies and the authorities, and trying to solve a mystery in order to save his own life, became the template for a lot of subsequent “thrillers” – a genre which Buchan called “shocker”, and that he contributed in creating, together with Erskine Childres.
If we are to believe Wikipedia (how could we not?), Buchan
described a “shocker” as an adventure where the events in the story are unlikely and the reader is only just able to believe that they really happened.
Sounds pulpy enough, right?
So influential was the book, that most of us today discovered it through one of its movie adaptations – possibly Hitchcock’s from 1935.
The novel is controversial.
Buchan wrote it (while he was recovering from appendicitis) as Europe was erupting in the Great War, and the author was firmly in the hawks field – in his story of political assassination and espionage lurks the shadow of “the Hun”, and the book was highly appreciated by servicemen in the trenches of WW1.
The reader’s reaction to Buchan’s aggressive politics could be further darkened by some gratuitous (but, sadly, revealing) attacks against the “Jewish Bankers” seen as puppeteers of the whole (real) European crisis.
The bit about the “Jewish Bankers” is particularly interesting – and it might be the starting point of some interesting book- related sleuthing – because never did Buchan express any anti-Semitic feeling, according to his friends and family.
It has been suggested that the gratuitous rants – which indeed have no connection with the rest of the plot – were added by an editor or publisher, eager to please a certain lamentable cultural attitude of the time.
Buchan’s opinion on the subject was never recorded.
But despite its rough elements, grating on the modern reader’s sensibilities, The Thirty-Nine Steps is a ripping yarn, and a fast-paced, well-constructed adventure thriller.
Through the lens of historical perspective, it can be actually enjoyed with little misgivings.
Most movie adaptations add to the story the only element that’s truly missing from the novel – the romantic element.
Buchan’s hero is focused on saving his own life and the nation’s safety, and has little time to lose with female partners – a state of affairs that screenwriters sought to correct in every screen version of the book.
Hitchcock’s version is considered a classic (and you can find it online on Youtube) – while the 1978 movie featuring Robert Powell in the role of Hannay is probably the closest to the original (and yet, we get a love story again).
Both the prequel TV series featuring Powell and the radio adaptation from the Mercury Theater featuring Orson Welles are high on my list of must see/must listen.
Here on my shelf, I have a huge omnibus, published by Wordsworth, featuring the novel and the four subsequent adventures of Richard Hannay – forever a lone man on the run, fighting the enemies of his country.