I first read this book many years ago and enjoyed it, so when I saw an Audible edition in 2017 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.
I’m joining in with The Chocolate Lady’s Throwback Thursday link party
The Thirty-Nine Steps is an adventure novel by the Scottish author John Buchan. It first appeared as a serial in Blackwood’s Magazine in August and September 1915 before being published in book form in October that year by William Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh. It is the first of the five novels featuring Richard Hannay, an all-action hero with a stiff upper lip and a miraculous knack for getting himself out of tricky situations. The novel formed the basis for a number of successful adaptations, including several film versions and a long-running stage play. In 2003, the book was listed on the BBC’s The Big Read poll of the UK’s “best-loved novels.”