It’s hard to believe that John Buchan’s classic thriller “The Thirty-Nine Steps” was first published a hundred years ago, in October 1915, following a serial publication in Blackwood’s Magazine the previous summer.
The adventures of Richard Hannay as he is pursued both by the police and German spies across the lonely hills of Galloway and Tweeddale have entranced readers ever since. It is, without question, the finest chase thriller ever written (though, arguably, Geoffrey Household’s “Rogue Male” comes in as a close second.)
“The Thirty-Nine Steps” was written in the first months of the Great War. Many of Buchan’s friends were already fighting in France and Belgium, but Buchan himself was ill and confined to bed. He spent the time writing what was to become his most famous work, though he always referred to it as a “shocker”.
In his dedication to his friend the publisher Tommy Nelson, who was later to be killed in the trenches, he described his new book as ‘a romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible’ – a definition that Raymond Chandler considered ‘a pretty good formula for the thriller of any kind.’
And the pace of “The Thirty-Nine Steps” is terrific. It could have been written yesterday, with its immediacy and non-stop action. The fate of Richard Hannay has inspired hundreds of ‘innocent in peril’ thrillers ever since, both books and films. It has been, of course, an enormous influence on filmmakers, particularly Alfred Hitchcock who made an film of the book in 1935 – even if he did fiddle considerably with Buchan’s plot.
And on the subject of the film versions, there have been three. Hitchcock’s starring Robert Donat, a 1960 version with Kenneth More and a 1970s take – actually properly set in 1914 – with Robert Powell (who went on to play Hannay again in an off-piste but entertaining TV series). All three are enormous fun and worth seeing, but they do take quite a few liberties with the original. There was also a recent BBC TV film about which the less said the better!
Where Buchan is very good is in his spirit of place. A considerable walker in wild places, he captures the Scottish landscape in a way that no other writer ever has, exceeding the descriptive powers of even Scott, Stevenson and Munro. You smell the heather, feel the wet of the hill-rain, sweat under the sun of a hot day in the Borders. You experience the physically exhausting – though sometimes exhilarating – experience of the man-hunt, as Hannay is pursued from one adventurous peril to another. Buchan put his great knowledge of every corner of these Scottish hills to very good use.
For decades Buchan was dismissed as a very slight writer, but he had had a considerable re-evaluation in recent years. His stature as one of the masters of Scottish fiction has at last been recognised. And he has a real relevance to the modern world. “Greenmantle”, the sequel to “The Thirty-Nine Steps”, gives a take on middle-eastern politics that seems very contemporary and shows a deep understanding of much that confronts the world today.
I have lost count of the number of times I have read “The Thirty-Nine Steps”. I could probably rewrite it from memory. But how I long to set out again with Richard Hannay as he flees a busy London and begins his long chase across the Border hills from some lonely railway station in Galloway.
Since I first read the novel as a boy, I have come to know some of these hills myself and can vouch for the accuracy of Buchan’s descriptions. In many ways Buchan has influenced my own writing. I was as pleased as punch when a reviewer, very generously, compared my recent thriller “Balmoral Kill” to the works of Buchan.
If you’ve never followed the adventures of Richard Hannay through “The Thirty-Nine Steps”, “Greenmantle”, “Mr Standfast”, “The Three Hostages” and “The Island of Sheep” please do try them.
And if you can, in the centenary year of the “The Thirty-Nine Steps”, why not see if you can get up to the hills of the Scottish Borders and pretend, just for a delicious childish moment, that you ARE Richard Hannay, being chased through the heather by some sinister and very deadly gentry with guns.
You might also like to seek out a lovely book of essays on the novel by John Burnett and Kate Mackay entitle “John Buchan and The Thirty-Nine Steps”, published by National Museum Scotland. The website of the John Buchan Society is worth a visit too.
The town of Peebles has a very good museum dedicated to the life and works of John Buchan. And for a taste of Buchan country try walking the thirteen-mile John Buchan Way from Broughton to Peebles. You can download a route leaflet from the internet.