History: This book first appeared as a serial in Blackwood's Magazine in August and September 1915 before being published in book form in October that year.
John Buchan wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps while he was ill in bed with a duodenal ulcer, an illness which remained with him all his life. The novel was his first "shocker", as he called it — a story combining personal and political dramas. The novel marked a turning point in Buchan’s literary career and introduced his famous adventuring hero, Richard Hannay. He 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.
Buchan's son, William, later wrote that the name of the book originated when the author's daughter, then about age six, was counting the stairs at a private nursing home in Broadstairs, 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.
Plot: Richard Hannay, the protagonist and narrator, an expatriate Scot, returns from a long stay in southern Africa to his new home, a flat in London. One night he is buttonholed by a stranger, a well-travelled American, who claims to be in fear for his life. The man appears to know of an anarchist plot to destabilize Europe, beginning with a plan to assassinate the Greek Premier, Karolides, during his forthcoming visit to London. He reveals his name to be Franklin P. Scudder. Hannay lets Scudder hide in his flat, and returns later the next day to find that another man has been found shot dead in the same building, apparently a suicide. Four days later Hannay returns home to find Scudder dead with a knife through his heart.
Hannay fears that the murderers will come for him next, but cannot ask the police for help because he is the most likely suspect for the murders. Not only does he want to avoid imprisonment, but he also feels a duty to take up Scudder's cause and save Karolides from the assassination, planned in three weeks' time. He decides to go into hiding in Scotland and then to contact the authorities at the last minute. In order to escape from his flat unseen, he bribes the milkman to lend him his uniform and exits wearing it. Carrying Scudder's pocket-book, he catches the next express train leaving from London St.Pancras station; its destination happens to be Dumfries in Scotland, and Hannay, remembering for some reason the nearby town of Newton-Stewart, names this as his destination when he buys his ticket from the guard.
Arriving at the countryside somewhere in Galloway, Hannay lodges in a shepherd's cottage. The next morning he reads in a newspaper that the police are looking for him in Scotland. Reasoning that the police would expect him to head for a port on the West Coast, he doubles back and boards a local train heading east, but jumps off between stations. He is seen but escapes, finding an inn where he stays the night. He tells the innkeeper a modified version of his story, and the man is persuaded to shelter him. While staying at the inn, Hannay cracks the substitution cipher used in Scudder's pocket-book. The next day two men arrive at the inn looking for Hannay, but the innkeeper sends them away. When they return later, Hannay steals their car and escapes.
On his way, Hannay reflects on what he has learnt from Scudder's notes. They contradict the story that Scudder first told to him, and mention an enemy group called the Black Stone and the mysterious Thirty-nine Steps. The United Kingdom appears to be in danger of an invasion by Germany and its allies. By this time, Hannay is being pursued by an aeroplane, and a policeman in a remote village has tried to stop him. Trying to avoid an oncoming car, Hannay crashes his own, but the other driver offers to take him home. The man is Sir Harry, a local landowner and prospective politician, although politically very naive. When he learns of Hannay's experience of South Africa, he invites him to address an election meeting that afternoon. Hannay's speech impresses Sir Harry, and Hannay feels able to trust him with his story. Sir Harry writes an introductory letter about Hannay to a relation in the Foreign Office.
Hannay leaves Sir Harry and tries to hide in the countryside, but is spotted by the aeroplane. Soon he spots a group of men on the ground searching for him. Miraculously, he meets a road mender out on the moor, and swaps places with him, sending the workman home. His disguise fools his pursuers, who pass him by. On the same road he meets a rich motorist, whom he recognises from London, and whom he forces to exchange clothes with him and drive him off the moor.
The next day, Hannay manages to stay ahead of the pursuers, and hides in a cottage occupied by an elderly man. Unfortunately, the man turns out to be one of the enemy, and with his accomplices he imprisons Hannay. Fortunately, the room in which Hannay is locked is full of bomb-making materials, which he uses to break out of the cottage, injuring himself in the process.
A day later, Hannay retrieves his possessions from the helpful roadmender and stays for a few days to recover from the explosion. He dines at a Public House in Moffat before walking to the junction at Beattock to catch a southbound train to England, changing at Crewe, Birmingham New Street and Reading, to meet Sir Harry's relative at the Foreign Office, Sir Walter Bullivant, at his country home in Berkshire. As they discuss Scudder's notes, Sir Walter receives a phone call to tell him that Karolides has been assassinated.
Sir Walter, now at his house in London, lets Hannay in on some military secrets before releasing him to go home. Hannay is unable to shake off his sense of involvement in important events, and returns to Sir Walter's house where a high-level meeting is in progress. He is just in time to see a man, whom he recognizes as one of his former pursuers in Scotland, leaving the house. Hannay warns Sir Walter that the man, ostensibly the First Sea Lord, is about to return to Europe with the information he has obtained from their meeting. At that point, Hannay realizes that the phrase "the thirty-nine steps" could refer to the landing-point in England from which the spy is about to set sail. Throughout the night Hannay and the United Kingdom's military leaders try to work out the meaning of the mysterious phrase.
After some reasoning worthy of Sherlock Holmes, and with the help of a knowledgeable coastguard, the group decide on a coastal town in Kent. They find a path down from the cliff that has thirty-nine steps. Just offshore they see a yacht. Posing as fishermen, some of the party visit the yacht, the Ariadne, and find that at least one of the crew appears to be German. The only people onshore are playing tennis by a villa and appear to be English, but they match Scudder's description of the conspirators, The Black Stone. Hannay, alone, confronts the men at the villa. After a struggle, two of the men are captured while the third flees to the yacht, which meanwhile has been seized by the British authorities. The plot is thwarted, and the United Kingdom enters the First World War having kept its military secrets from the enemy.
A few weeks later, Hannay joins the army with a captain's rank.
Review: John Buchan wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps at breakneck speed in 1914, while suffering from the stomach ulcer that would dog him for the rest of his life. He was staying in a nursing home by the seaside at Broadstairs in Kent and, according to his son, the title of the book came from a flight of wooden steps which led down to the beach from the grounds of the house. The steps were later removed and presented to Buchan.
Writing the book was a way of taking his mind off his bodily pain, and his mental anguish, too, for the First World War had just broken out. Before the book was finished, Buchan might well have been able to hear the guns from Flanders: Ypres is less than 50 miles across the water from Broadstairs. Amid so much calamity it is hardly surprising that Buchan set his story in familiar, well-loved places – the Scottish borders and in particular the countryside of Galloway, where he had often holidayed, fished and climbed with his family and his Oxford friends. And, of course, in the face of a war with Germany, his villain had to be a German, the Graf von Schwabing.
The book he named after the flight of steps was not the first of his “shockers”, as he called his tales of adventure and spying. In 1913, a year previously, Blackwood’s Magazine had published “The Power-House”, a story about a lawyer who stumbles into an international conspiracy, is nearly done to death in an upstairs room in a restaurant in Fitzrovia and then is chased across London by a large gang of ruffians.
The Buchan shockers are hard to pigeonhole as belonging to one particular genre of literature. They are not spy stories in the usual sense, or detective stories or adventure stories pure and simple. Nor are they based on imaginary worlds or bizarre experiences, though elements of the magical come in here and there.
These tasters of sinister evils being practiced in strange foreign places, which are found in all the Hannay books, are a reflection of Buchan’s own beliefs and state of mind. A moderate conservative in politics, a Presbyterian son of the manse and a good Scot, the fey side of him really did believe that civilization’s wheels were coming off due to a clash of cultures, too many greedy men and large doses of human stupidity.
The Thirty-Nine Steps introduces the reader to Richard Hannay, a man of action who puts his own safety second to the safety of his country. Hannay’s activities incorporate much of Buchan’s own experiences.
Like Hannay, Buchan was a skilled fisherman and hill climber, whose early career had been spent riding across the South African veldt in charge of agricultural policy and resettlement at the end of the Boer war.
Many of the characters in the Hannay books are based on Buchan’s friends and colleagues.
All the Hannay books involve a chase across wild country with the life of the hero and/or the villain at stake.
Despite their strange characteristics, there is a kind of psychological reality about these Buchan villains. There is a genuine echo of the political background which created the fascist and communist dictators who were to have such an influence on Europe. They too had their personal idiosyncrasies.
Buchan’s technique as a writer is simple enough and well displayed inThe Thirty-Nine Steps. He understood that in a thriller, as opposed for example to a detective story, what matters above all is to keep the reader focused on what is going to happen next, irrespective of where things may end up. And also to keep him convinced that what he is reading here and now could really happen.
The Thirty-Nine Steps is more like a series of exciting episodes strung end to end than a carefully plotted tale. The speed is breathtaking, with each successive scene gripping the reader’s imagination, and with every place, actor and motive indelibly sketched.
Perhaps he would have been more surprised to learn that nearly 100 years later his book had spawned more than half a dozen films and plays and acquired an enduring literary status.
Opening Line: “I returned from the City about three o'clock on that May afternoon pretty well disgusted with life.”
Closing Line:“But I had done my best service, I think, before I put on khaki.”
Quotes: “I found the place. Thirty-nine steps, I read, and again, Thirty-nine steps -I counted them - high tide 10.17 P.M.”