Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Thirty-Nine Steps

I reminded myself that a week ago I had been finding the world dull.

First published in 1915, The Thirty-Nine Steps is a classic of spy fiction. The story of the innocent man on the run is now one of the most popular tales found in thriller fiction and Hollywood legend, and is seen here in one of its earliest forms. It was a story that not only brought entertainment to a country in the midst of the Great War, but it also brought inspiration and a much needed diversion to the men in the trenches. And though he would be the author of many other works (both fiction and non-fiction), it is for this little gem of a book that John Buchan is now remembered.

The Plot:

After many years in South Africa, Richard Hannay has returned to his native Britain, hoping to enjoy a life of ease and fun. Unfortunately, he finds life in London to be extremely dull after the wilds of Africa and is planning on returning to his former residence. In walks Franklin Scudder, a freelance spy who is in need of help. He has uncovered a German plot to murder a Greek permier and steal valuable British military secrets. One day after revealing these facts to Hannay, Scudder turns up dead in Hannay's flat. Hannay realizes that his own life is in jeopardy, not only from the police, but also from the German spies who will connect him to Scudder.

So begins his mad dash to Scotland to clear his name and stop the Germans from obtaining their goal. He is forced to think quickly, keep a cool head, and endure many hardships. In the end, it will take all of his strength, his smarts, and his patriotism to defeat the enemy around him.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

This was a fun little read. At only 100 and some odd pages long, it is something that you should be able to get through pretty quickly. The plot is fast-paced with very little to slow it down.

I couldn't help but compare it to the other early spy novel in my reading life: Ashenden. If Ashenden is a study in human character and the affects of spying on the human conciense, then The Thirty-Nine Steps is its opposite. Here, we are not so much concerned with the characters in the story as we are with the story itself. The villians are left somewhat in the shadows, the details of the German plot remain somewhat murky, and Hannay himself (though an interesting character) sometimes seems one-dimensional. The Thirt-Nine Steps also lacks some of the exotic flavor of, say, Kim. Though I'm sure the idea of "spies among us" worked for Buchan's original audience, it doesn't seem as dangerous or thrilling to a 21st Century American reader.

I think that the one element of the story that shines the most and reflects the time it was written in is the emphasis on patriotism. Hannay is a hero, because he ignored his own plans, safety, and wishes in order to help his country. It would have been very easy for him to catch the first boat back to South Africa after Scudder's death and hide out in the bush for a few years, but Hannay doesn't chose that path. His stiff upper-lip comes out and he faces all of the unknowns in order to protect his country's military secrets. It is this quality that endears him to us. It is why we root for him every step of the way. And it is why the young British soldiers in the trenches loved this story so much, for in Hannay, they saw a portrait of what they themselves were: men who were willing to lay it all on the line in service of their country.

All in all, this an exciting and fun read. If you like books with a fast pace and thrilling adventures, then this one is for you. If you are a devotee of spy novels, this is the grandaddy of them all and a must-read. And if you are a Hitchcock fan, it is a must-read to see the roots of many of the masterpieces to come.

The Movie:

If any book was "made for tv" it's this one, and yet strangely enough, their really isn't one that follows the novel very well. The first and most famous adaptation is the 1935 version starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll and directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Though one of Hitchcock's earliest films, it is considered one of his best and would be the forerunner to many other "man-on-the-run" films like Saboteur and North by Northwest. So this is a must-view for any Hitchcock lover. But like most Hitchcock films, it doesn't exactly follow the original very well.

The other versions are a 1959 version starring Kenneth More and the 1978 version starring Robert Powell. The most recent of course is the 2008 version starring Rupert Penry-Jones which I will be reviewing next week.

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