- Author: John Buchan
- Performed by Robert Powell
- Released: September 2007 by Audible Studios
- Category: British Literature, Spy, Espionage
When Richard Hannay offered sanctuary to the man he found on his doorstep, he took the first step on a trail of peril, murder, and espionage.
I first read this book years ago and enjoyed it, so when I saw an Audible edition at just under four hours long I decided it was time to revisit this classic. This adaptation stays true to the original as far as I remember, unlike the films. Although the language is obviously dated by today’s standards, the writing is good and it’s still enjoyable for what it is, a good spy story of its time.
The story is set just prior to the first world war. Richard Hannay, the narrator of the story, recently returned to London from South Africa, is already bored with the lifestyle and seriously considering returning to South Africa. When he arrives home one day he finds his neighbour, an American journalist by the name of Scudder, on his doorstep. Scudder has knowledge of an organisation called the Black Stone who are involved in a dastardly plot. Scudder needs help, pronouncing himself already dead as he has faked his own death. Hannay is curious and listens to Scudder’s extraordinary tale of political intrigue. When Scudder is murdered for real in Hannay’s flat and he is wanted for the murder, Hannay feels obliged to pick up where Scudder left off. He escapes London, traveling all over England and finally to Scotland, while trying to evade his pursuers, both the police and the Black Stone, and unravel the meaning of the thirty-nine steps.
He told me some queer things that explained a lot that had puzzled me – things that happened in the Balkan War, how one state suddenly came out on top, why alliances were made and broken, why certain men disappeared, and where the sinews of war came from. The aim of the whole conspiracy was to get Russia and Germany at loggerheads.
This is an adventure story with one man pitted against multiple antagonists. The stakes are immensely high. Yes, credibility has to be suspended as our manly hero outwits his pursuers at each turn. People in the remote, and atmospherically described, highlands of Scotland are there by lucky chance to help, just in the nick of time to save the day. The plot is very fast paced and quite far fetched (in one instance Hannay is locked up by the villain – in a room with dynamite!) The audio is fun all the same, if it’s not taken too seriously. There’s still a feeling of recklessness and desperation about it. Just pure escapism. All these years later the characterisation is, not surprisingly, quite stereotypical. As well as being very un-PC with anti-Jewish references, language and actually no women to speak of, as well as phrases that wouldn’t be tolerated today. Having said that, it’s probably the forerunner of many later spy/thriller books, and in its defence it was written in 1915, well before political correctness became the watchword.
Robert Powell does a great job with the narration, his voice and diction is perfect for the role of Richard Hannay. Good changes of character and accents.
About John Buchan
John Buchan (1st Baron Tweedsmuir) was a Scottish novelist and public servant who combined a successful career as an author of thrillers, historical novels, histories and biographies with a parallel career in public life. At the time of his death he was Governor-General of Canada.
Buchan was educated at Glasgow and Oxford Universities. After a brief career in law he went to South Africa in 1902 where he contributed to the reconstruction of the country following the Boer War. His love for South Africa is a recurring theme in his fiction.
On returning to Britain, Buchan built a successful career in publishing with Nelsons and Reuters. During the first world war, he was Director of Information in the British government. He wrote a twenty-four volume history of the war, which was later abridged.
Alongside his busy public life, Buchan wrote superb action novels, including the spy-catching adventures of Richard Hannay, whose exploits are described in The Thirty-Nine Steps, Greenmantle, Mr. Standfast, The Three Hostages, and The Island of Sheep.
From 1927 to 1935 Buchan was Conservative M.P. for the Scottish Universities, and in 1935, on his appointment as Governor-General to Canada, he was made a peer, taking the title Baron Tweedsmuir. During these years he was still productive as a writer, and published notable historical biographies, such as Montrose, Sir Walter Scott, and Cromwell.