Scottsman’s John Buchan’s fabulous The 39 Steps is rightly considered a seminal classic in the Adventure/Spy genre. This exciting tale of espionage defined the man-on-the-run tale in breathless fashion, and was the first of the author’s Richard Hannay tales. What remains remarkable is the contemporary prose.
Though it takes place before the first World War, offering insight into the view of what was happening at that time, the tale is timeless, and with minor changes, could easily be a thrilling espionage adventure told in our day. Sure, some of what happens is implausible, almost Cornell Woolrich implausible, but with a style and pace which makes Robert Ludlum seem lethargic — no easy task — we simply don’t care.
Reading The 39 Steps is fun and exciting, watching Hannay escape time after time until the thrilling confrontation and conclusion exhilarating. Buchan writes as though using lighting bolts rather than a pen, and we’re just along for the electric ride. The 39 Steps is the quintessential can’t-put-down read. That thrill you got as a youngster reading a mystery adventure by flashlight beneath the covers was captured by Buchan and moved forward into adulthood.
The book differs from Hitchcock’s famous British adaptation in that there is no love interest for Hannay here; frankly because it isn’t needed. A rollicking good old-fashioned tale that set a bar seldom reached since. Fabulous fun.