Monday, July 8, 2013

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

Too few thrills for a thriller
The Thirty-Nine Steps, an espionage thriller by John Buchan, was originally published in 1915. A story of a lone man taking on a conspiracy against his country, it can be seen as a precursor to the spy novels of authors such as Ian Fleming and John Le Carré. Though it was probably ground breaking for its time, and helped to establish the template of its genre, to a 21st-century audience who has read, seen, and heard thousands of spy stories, it is hardly outstanding.

Richard Hannay, a former mining engineer with some experience as an intelligence officer, has spent most of his life in South Africa. Having returned to his native Britain, Hannay finds himself bored to death in London, hoping for a diversion to rouse him from his ennui. His wish is granted in the form of Franklin P. Scudder, an American neighbor who shows up on his doorstep, asking to hide out in Hannay’s apartment. Scudder has discovered a plot by anarchists to assassinate the Premier of Greece, thereby plunging Europe into chaos and war. When Scudder is murdered, Hannay realizes that the killers will be after him next. He flees London, hoping to hide out in rural Scotland, but his pursuers are hot on his trail.

Though originally published as a magazine serial, The Thirty-Nine Steps is a step above run-of-the-mill pulp fiction. The subject matter could lend itself easily to sensationalization, but Buchan delivers his tale with a matter-of-factness that strengthens its believability. When describing the sinister plot that threatens the stability of the free world, however, Buchan reverts to ambiguous slang and vague clichés that leave the reader wondering exactly what the plan is that Hannay is trying to thwart. The aim of the villains seems to be to start a world war, but given that World War I was a foregone conclusion at the time the book was published, how shocking is that?

Hannay’s first person narrative voice is charmingly level-headed and seasoned with a fair degree of cynicism and a bit of wry wit. Though a likeable and identifiable hero, he possesses the annoying quality of being just too darn lucky. Although he seems to have a good head on his shoulders, more often than not he gets out of a jam not through the use of his wits but through the assistance of a series of benevolent strangers that miraculously appear at convenient moments, always willing to help. Though it’s refreshing that Hannay is an everyman, not a superhero like so many spy story protagonists, today’s reader expects a little more self-sufficiency from their espionage heroes, and wants to see their man solve his own problems.

The villains are usually lurking offstage somewhere and never quite materialize distinctively enough to be satisfactorily menacing. The final chapter delivers a suspenseful scene, but squanders its thrills by finishing with an abrupt and weak ending. The Thirty-Nine Steps may have served as an important stage in the development of the spy novel, but it’s a stage long since passed. In a market glutted with espionage thrillers, why settle for one that’s just OK?

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