Most people will know the plot thanks to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 movie version, “The 39 Steps.”
A spy with information vital to the British government is killed in Richard Hannay’s apartment. The police think Hannay did it and hunt him down. The real culprits - enemy spies – think Hannay knows their secret plans, and set out to kill him.
Richard Hannay, with only a partial idea of their plans and a couple of clues, takes off for the Scottish Highlands to track down a man and get to the bottom of this mystery. He cleverly eludes both the cops and the killers while putting the story together. When he figures out enough of it, he makes his way back to London to inform the British military chiefs.
The novel, written and published during World War I, is set in the pre-war years but features German agents as the bad guys. The spies’ secret mission is to assassinate a foreign diplomat visiting England and stir up a lot of trouble for the British and to steal Naval secrets. John Buchan devotes a lot of ink to explaining the convoluted plans.
Hitchcock wisely collapsed the spy plot into a brief description, believing the audience did not need to know too much about it, other than that it is the thing Hannay needs to find out and the spies need to conceal.
Alfred Hitchcock also gave the head spy a better physical trait for Hannay to discover and unmask the villain. But while eliminating some of the far-fetched aspects of the book, Hitchcock also added a bizarre element in the person of “Mister Memory,” a music hall entertainer with a photographic memory who the spies use to convey secret military plans. Mister Memory is not in the book.
The book keeps the action going with Hannay bursting in on a meeting of British military chiefs to tell them of the spies’ plans. That Hannay could arrive where the brass is meeting, be allowed in, and have those men listen to him, seems absurd now, a century later. Maybe it was absurd then, too. Perhaps the book’s Richard Hannay could do it because he is a wealthy, educated man who by his mid-30s had made a fortune in Rhodesia and settled in London to live a life of leisure – and boredom – until this all happened.
Informing the officials of what he has learned is not the end of the book. Hannay has to catch the spies before they slip out of the country.
The Thirty-Nine Steps creaks a bit, but it remains an entertaining, fast-paced read.
(And, if you enjoy fast-paced stories, please check out my book, Lyme Depot. Thanks.)
(For more posts on books, head over to Todd Mason’s blog.)