The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

Penguin, 2007, 159 p. One of the 100 best Scottish books. Borrowed from a threatened library.

The 39 Steps cover

This is another story which, like Stevenson’s “Jekyll and Hyde” being familiar from film and television, people perhaps think they know.

In it, Richard Hannay begins as a bored ex-patriate in London who perhaps should have been careful what he wished for. His upstairs neighbour, who calls himself Franklin P Scudder, a man who refers to “the Jew” being behind the conspiracy he regales Hannay with, begs for shelter in Hannay’s flat for a few days till he can thwart said conspiracy. But of course Hannay returns to the flat one day to find Scudder dead and so has to flee under suspicion of murder. The majority of the novel then consists in Hannay being chased around southern Scotland in what is now Dumfries and Galloway getting into and out of various scrapes and predicaments which are sometimes evaded too handily, meanwhile solving the puzzle of the thirty-nine steps and disrupting the plans of his adversaries of the Black Stone. It all rattles along at a glorious pace without much pause for thought and incidentally allows descriptions of the landscape he flees through; a common Scottish authorial trait.

Unlike all three film adaptations I have seen – and the most recent TV one – there is not a woman companion in sight. Barring a wifie who provides shelter to Hannay one night there aren’t any women at all. It does, though, have the merit of being able to be read quickly.

I can only think that this creeps into that 100 best list for historical reasons. It has no literary pretensions. Buchan himself, in his preface (addressed to Thomas Arthur Nelson) refers to it as “the type of tale which Americans call the ‘dime novel,’ and which we know as the ‘shocker’”.

Once again the prose shows itself to be of its time: as in John Macnab, there are several unflattering mentions of Jews not in particular but as a type, and a “you’re a white man”, plus also here a Greek is referred to as a dago.

I note, too, a “minutes later” count of six or seven.

Pedant’s corner:- There were several editions at the library (they’re running a Buchan competition.) I chose this one because I liked the 1930s style of its cover. Yet the book was first published in 1915. Moreover the biplane is wrong. The text several times emphasises that Hannay is being chased by a monoplane. Buluwayo (Bulawayo,) Liepsic (context suggested Liepzig,) jiffey (jiffy,) – were these words spelled that way in the 1910s? – rung (rang,) whiskys (whiskies,) Karolides’ (Karolides’s.)

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8 comments

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  1. Paul Fraser

    I have no idea how this book makes any top 100. It reads like Buchan was making it up as he went along, and not particularly well. I also found the anti-semitism and racism quite off-putting.
    As to the Karolides’ point, my Fowler states: ‘It is customary, however, to omit the ‘s when the last syllable of the name is pronounced /-IZ/, as in Bridges’, Moses’. Jesus’ is an acceptable liturgical archasim.’
    How the ‘s after a s ending, i.e. Roberts’s, has lasted as long as it has, given how clumsy it sounds, never fails to amaze me. But I’m grinding my axe now…

  2. jackdeighton

    Paul,
    It may be that The 39 Steps was the first of its kind. And of course Hitchcock made it part of the landscape. And yes the racism and anti-semiticism grate nowadays but to Buchan they were perhaps commonplace.
    I don’t always agree with Fowler and this is a case in point. I reserve s’ for plural nouns only. I’m not convinced about Roberts’s sounding clumsy as that’s how I’ve always said it. If it’s awkward as a possessive what about the plural as in, “The Robertses are coming to dinner,”?

  3. Paul Fraser

    I’d say that the Roberts are coming to dinner, which may be incorrect but is easier/lazier to say. The extra ‘es’ adds nothing in terms of clarity to the statement so I wonder if anyone will bother in the future unless it is drummed into them. I suspect how you feel about all this depends on whether you have a rules based or usage based bias towards the language and its development. Oliver Kamm, in his Saturday Times column, covers quite a lot of the latter kind of thing but, in his defence, not what I’m suggesting here. I’ve also read articles suggesting the apostrophe may be doomed too. What does an apostrophe add to the statement ‘That is Jacks blog’?
    Sorry, wildly digressing again 🙂

  4. jackdeighton

    Paul,
    You got me wondering about this. Would anyone say “Alice Adventures in Wonderland”? The ending sound of Alice is more or less the same as the s in Roberts.
    I suppose I lean towards the rules-based camp – except the rules are really my own. I don’t remember ever being told that s’ must only be reserved for plurals; it just makes sense to me that it should.
    Jacks blog looks decidedly odd to me in print even though it’s how it’s said.
    As to the apostrophe I would have said it is definitely useful in distinguishing its from it’s. I notice when they are confused but I do get the meaning.
    I was reading only today of Chambers’s Journal from the 19th century; yet I believe that over the years the dictionary has been Chambers’ or Chambers’s.

  5. Paul Fraser

    Kamm’s new book has an interesting section on this denoting the possessive apostrophe’s development from singular possession, “the King’s men” for “the King his men”, through irregular plurals “women’s”, to plural nouns ending in s from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. “It’s” was used for possession up till the nineteenth century!
    Fascinating stuff, and I hope you’ll continue to point out these errors so I can try and improve my English.

  6. jackdeighton

    Paul,
    I could say “I aim to please” (but I’m not sure I really do. Aim to, or please.)
    It’s as a possessive? Did they also write her’s, our’s and so on? In which case I assume his is a shortening of him’s.

  7. Paul Fraser

    I never thought of that, and don’t think it is referred to in the book, but there is some other stuff about the plural of genius being genius’s at one point etc. If you are interested I can copy the relevant pages and send them to you. It’s all on a couple/three pages and at that point you’ll know as much as me.

  8. jackdeighton

    Paul,
    That would be interesting, yes.

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