The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan


Richard Hannay has just returned to England after years in South Africa and is thoroughly bored with his life in London. But then a murder is committed in his flat, just days after a chance encounter with an American who had told him about an assassination plot that could have dire international consequences. An obvious suspect for the police and an easy target for the killers, Hannay goes on the run in his native Scotland where he will need all his courage and ingenuity to stay one step ahead of his pursuers.

In the early summer of 1914, former soldier and adventure Richard Hannay finds himself in London, without friends and bored. That is until one evening when a neighbour knocks on his door, telling him a tale of spies and espionage. The neighbour is afraid, hiding out in Hannay’s flat…until he ends up dead and Hannay finds himself on the run, accused of the murder.

Fleeing not the just the murderers but the police, Hannay heads to Scotland, convinced he just needs to stay safe for a few weeks before the secrets shared with him can be shared with the rest of the world – secrets which will either bring about a world war or end one.

It’s a story I know well because I have seen the movie The Thirty Nine Steps (both the Alfred Hitchcock version and subsequent 1958 version) many times. At the same time, it felt very different because, it turns out, the movies have taken liberties with the plot.  The core is the same though, lots of running away from the bad guys, lots of close shaves for Hannay, and way too much luck.

Coming across an acquaintance in his car in the highlands of Scotland whilst in desperate need of escape is just one such piece of luck but there are many and by the third or fourth I was getting bored. Yes, they proposed the plot forward but they also made it silly. At the same time, I know this was a magazine serial so I wonder if these were the weekly cliffhangers?

Still, knowing this didn’t help and I struggled with reading the book as a result. The writing style didon’t help either. Written in 1915, it felt like it – the language was stilted and didn’t have the flow I like. The story also didn’t hold the tension I expected – in part because he keeps escaping. It all left me disappointed I’m afraid…not one for me.


p.s. On a plus note, this is my first Classic Club read for a while!



  1. Yes, I think this is one where the movies actually improve the story – especially the Hitchcock version. But then I’m a huge Hitchcock fan in general, and not so much a fan of John Buchan…


  2. I’ve always meant to read this, and I was aware the film’s had taken liberties with the storylines. It is ludicrous, meeting someone you know in the Highlands! Isn’t this regarded as being the first crime novel? I didn’t know it had been written in serial form, so I imagine you’re right – they need their weekly cliffhangers!


    • I don’t think I realised how many liberties till I read it and then there is all this imagery in my head. It was all very confusing! I read he was James Bond before James Bond but as I haven’t read any Ian Fleming I don’t know if this is true.


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