The Thirty-Nine Steps
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 five novels featuring Richard Hannay, an all-action hero with a stiff upper lip and a miraculous knack for getting himself out of sticky situations.
|Publisher||William Blackwood and Sons|
|Media type||Print (hardback and paperback)|
The novel formed the basis for a number of film adaptations: Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 version; a 1959 colour remake; a 1978 version; and a 2008 version for British television. In 2003 the book was listed on the BBC's The Big Read poll of the UK's "best-loved novels."
John Buchan wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps while he was ill in bed with a duodenal ulcer, an illness which remained with him all his life. The novel was his first "shocker", as he called it – a story combining personal and political dramas. The novel marked a turning point in Buchan's literary career and introduced his adventuring hero, Richard Hannay. He described a "shocker" as an adventure where the events in the story are unlikely and the reader is only just able to believe that they really happened.
Buchan's son, William, later wrote that the name of the book originated when the author's daughter was counting the stairs at a private nursing home in Broadstairs, where Buchan was convalescing. "There was a wooden staircase leading down to the beach. My sister, who was about six, and who had just learnt to count properly, went down them and gleefully announced: there are 39 steps." Some time later the house was demolished and a section of the stairs, complete with a brass plaque, was sent to Buchan. The mysterious phrase Thirty-Nine Steps, first mentioned by the character Franklin Scudder, becomes the title of the novel and the solution to its meaning is a thread that runs through the whole story.
The novel is set during May and June 1914; war was impending in Europe, Richard Hannay the protagonist and narrator, an expatriate Scot, returns to his new home, a flat in London, after a long stay in Rhodesia to begin a new life. One night he is buttonholed by a stranger, a well-travelled American, who claims to be in fear for his life. The man appears to know of an anarchist plot to destabilise Europe, beginning with a plan to assassinate the Greek Premier, Constantine Karolides, during his forthcoming visit to London. The man reveals his name to be Franklin P. Scudder, a freelance spy, and remarks that he is dead, which holds Hannay's attention. Scudder explains that he has faked his own death to avert suspicion. Scudder claims to be following a ring of German spies called the Black Stone who are trying to steal British plans for the outbreak of war. Hannay lets Scudder hide in his flat, and sure enough the next day another man is discovered having apparently committed suicide in the same building. A couple of days later Hannay returns home to find Scudder dead with a knife through his heart.
Hannay fears that the murderers will come for him next, but cannot ask the police for help because he is the most likely suspect for the murders as he lived in the same building. He also feels a duty to take up Scudder's cause and save Karolides from the assassination. He decides to go into hiding in Scotland and then to contact the authorities at the last minute. To escape from his flat unseen, he bribes the milkman into lending him his uniform and exits wearing it, escaping from the German spies watching the house. Carrying Scudder's pocket-book, he catches an express train leaving from London's St. Pancras Station. Hannay fixes upon Galloway, in south-west Scotland, as a suitably remote place in which to make his escape and remembers somehow the town of Newton-Stewart, which he names as his destination when he buys his ticket from the guard.
Arriving at a remote station somewhere in Galloway (apparently not Newton Stewart itself), Hannay lodges in a shepherd's cottage. The next morning he reads in a newspaper that the police are looking for him in Scotland. Reasoning that the police would expect him to head for a port on the West Coast, he boards a local train heading east, but jumps off between stations. He is seen but escapes, finding an inn where he stays the night. He tells the innkeeper a modified version of his story, and the man is persuaded to shelter him. While staying at the inn, Hannay cracks the substitution cipher used in Scudder's pocket-sized book. The next day two men arrive at the inn looking for Hannay, but the innkeeper sends them away. When they return later, Hannay steals their car and escapes.
On his way, Hannay reflects on what he has learnt from Scudder's notes. They contradict the story that Scudder first told to him, and mention an enemy group called the Black Stone and the mysterious Thirty-nine Steps. The United Kingdom appears to be in danger of an invasion by Germany and its allies. By this time, Hannay is being pursued by an aeroplane, and a policeman in a remote village has tried to stop him. Trying to avoid an oncoming car, Hannay crashes his own, but the other driver offers to take him home. The man is Sir Harry, a local landowner and prospective politician, although politically very naïve. When he learns of Hannay's experiences in South Africa, he invites him to address an election meeting that afternoon. Hannay's speech impresses Sir Harry, and Hannay feels able to trust him with his story. Sir Harry writes an introductory letter about Hannay to a relation in the Foreign Office.
Hannay leaves Sir Harry and tries to hide in the countryside, but is spotted by the aeroplane. Soon he spots a group of men on the ground searching for him. Miraculously, he meets a road mender out on the moor, and swaps places with him, sending the workman home. His disguise fools his pursuers, who pass him by. On the same road he meets, in a passing touring car, a Society sycophant whom he recognises from London and whom he forces to exchange clothes with him and drive him off the moor.
The next day, Hannay manages to stay ahead of the pursuers, and hides in a cottage occupied by an elderly man. Unfortunately, the man turns out to be one of the enemy, and with his accomplices he locks Hannay into his storage room. Fortunately, the room in which Hannay is locked is full of bomb-making materials, which he uses to break out of the cottage, injuring himself in the process.
A day later, Hannay retrieves his possessions from the helpful road mender and stays for a few days to recover from the explosion. He dines at a public house in Moffat before walking to the junction at Beattock to catch a southbound train to England, changing at Crewe, Birmingham New Street and Reading, to meet Sir Harry's relative at the Foreign Office, Sir Walter Bullivant, at his country home in Berkshire. As they discuss Scudder's notes, Sir Walter receives a phone call to tell him that Karolides has been assassinated.
Sir Walter, now at his house in London, lets Hannay in on some military secrets before releasing him to go home. Hannay, unable to shake off his sense of involvement, returns to Sir Walter's house where a high-level meeting is in progress. As one of the men, ostensibly the First Sea Lord, leaves the meeting, Hannay recognises him as one of his former pursuers in Scotland. Hannay warns Sir Walter and the other officials that the man was an impostor, and they realise the spy is about to return to Europe with the information he has obtained from their meeting. At that point, Hannay realises that the phrase "the thirty-nine steps" could refer to the landing-point in England from which the spy is about to set sail. Throughout the night, Hannay and the British military leaders try to work out the meaning of the mysterious phrase.
After some reasoning worthy of Sherlock Holmes, and with the help of a knowledgeable coastguard, the group decide on a coastal town in Kent. They find a path down from the cliff that has thirty-nine steps. Just offshore they see a yacht. Posing as fishermen, some of the party visit the yacht, the Ariadne, and find that at least one of the crew appears to be German. The only people onshore are playing tennis by a villa and appear to be English, but they match Scudder's description of the conspirators, The Black Stone. Hannay, alone, confronts the men at the villa. After a struggle, two of the men are captured while the third flees to the yacht, which meanwhile has been seized by the British authorities. The plot is thwarted, and the United Kingdom enters the First World War, having kept its military secrets from the enemy.
On the outbreak of war, Hannay joins the New Army and is immediately commissioned captain.
Literary significance and criticism
The Thirty-Nine Steps is one of the earliest examples of the 'man-on-the-run' thriller archetype subsequently adopted by film makers as an often-used plot device. In The Thirty-Nine Steps, Buchan holds up Richard Hannay as an example to his readers of an ordinary man who puts his country's interests before his own safety. The story was a great success with the men in the First World War trenches. One soldier wrote to Buchan, "The story is greatly appreciated in the midst of mud and rain and shells, and all that could make trench life depressing."
Richard Hannay continued his adventures in four subsequent books. Two were set during the war, when Hannay continued his undercover work against the Germans and their allies the Turks in Greenmantle (1916) and Mr Standfast (1919). The other two stories, The Three Hostages (1924) and The Island of Sheep (1936) were set in the post-war period, when Hannay's opponents were criminal gangs.
- Richard Hannay – expatriate Scot recently returned from Southern Africa, who is the protagonist and narrator
- Franklin P. Scudder – freelance spy
- Karolides – Greek Premier under threat of assassination, who never appears and is alluded to only.
- Sir Harry – Scottish landowner and would-be politician
- Sir Walter Bullivant – Sir Harry's relation at the Foreign Office
In other media
The novel has been adapted in radio, film, and for stage. There have been several film versions of the book; all depart substantially from the text, for example, by introducing a love interest absent from the original novel. For the films, the title is often abbreviated to The 39 Steps, but the full title is more commonly used for the book and for the 1978 adaptation.
On 1 August 1939, Orson Welles starred in a radio adaptation of the novel on The Mercury Theatre on the Air. Glenn Ford starred in an adaptation on 23 March 1948 broadcast of Studio One with Everett Sloane, Mercedes McCambridge and Kathleen Cordell. Herbert Marshall starred in a radio adaptation on 3 March 1952 broadcast of Suspense.
The BBC has broadcast four different adaptations: the first was a six-part drama in 1939 starring Jack Livesey as Hannay; in 1960 another six-part drama was aired with James Mckechnie as Hannay; a 90-minute version starring David Rintoul as Hannay, directed by Patrick Rayner, aired 28 December 1989; and a two-part adaptation on BBC Radio 4 in March 2001, starring David Robb as Hannay with Tom Baker as Sir Walter Bullivant, was adapted by Bert Coules.
The 39 Steps (1935)
The 1935 black and white film adaptation directed by Alfred Hitchcock departs substantially from the book. It stars Robert Donat as Hannay and Madeleine Carroll as the woman he meets on the train. It is regarded by many critics as the superior film version. This was the first Hitchcock film based upon the idea of an "innocent man on the run", such as Saboteur and North by Northwest. Scholars of his films regard this film as one of his best variations upon this particular theme. In 1999, it came 4th in a BFI poll of British films and in 2004 Total Film named it the 21st greatest British film of all time.
The 39 Steps (1959)
The 1959 film directed by Ralph Thomas was the first colour version, starring Kenneth More as Hannay and Taina Elg as Miss Fisher. The film is closely based on Hitchcock's adaptation, including the music-hall finale with "Mr Memory" and Hannay's escape from a train on the Forth Bridge, scenes not present in the book. It features a musical score by Clifton Parker.
The 39 Steps (1978)
The 1978 version was directed by Don Sharp and starred Robert Powell as Hannay, Karen Dotrice as Alex, John Mills as Colonel Scudder and a host of other well-known British actors in smaller parts. It is generally regarded as the closest to the book, being set at the same time as the novel was, pre-Great War, but still bears little resemblance to Buchan's original story. Its climax bore no relation to the novel's denouement, instead seeing Hannay hanging from the hands of Big Ben. The film was followed by a spin-off television series, Hannay, starring Powell, featuring adventures occurring prior to the events in The Thirty Nine Steps.
The 39 Steps (2008)
The BBC commissioned a new television adaptation of the novel, scripted by Lizzie Mickery and produced by BBC Scotland's drama unit. The 90-minute film stars Rupert Penry-Jones as Richard Hannay and was broadcast on 28 December 2008 A romantic subplot was added to the story, featuring Lydia Leonard. The storyline only very tenuously follows that of the book, many characters being renamed, or omitted altogether. The film ends with a scene involving a submarine in a Scottish loch, rather than the original setting off the Kent coast, and the apparent death of one character.
A comic theatrical adaptation by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon for a cast of four actors premiered in 1995 at the Georgian Theatre Royal in Richmond, North Yorkshire, before embarking on a tour of village halls across the north of England. In 2005 Patrick Barlow rewrote the script, keeping the scenes, staging and small-scale feel, and in June 2005 this re-adaption premiered at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, The play then opened in London's Tricycle Theatre, and after a successful run transferred to the Criterion Theatre in Piccadilly where it became the fifth longest running play until it closed in September 2015. Although drawing on Buchan's novel, it is strongly influenced by Hitchcock's 1935 film adaptation. On 15 January 2008, the show made its US Broadway premiere at the American Airlines Theatre; it transferred to the Cort Theatre on 29 April 2008 and then moved to the Helen Hayes Theatre on 21 January 2009, where it ended its run on 10 January 2010. It reopened on Stage One of New York's Off-Broadway venue New World Stages on 25 March 2010 and closed on 15 April 2010. The Broadway production received six Tony Award nominations, winning two—Best Lighting Design and Best Sound Design with the London show winning an Olivier in 2007 and two Tony Awards in 2008. The play also won the Drama Desk Award, Unique Theatrical Experience.
Location of the steps
Buchan wrote the book while he was recuperating from illness at a house called St Cuby, Cliff Promenade, Broadstairs. As mentioned in the Background section, the original steps were demolished, and a part of them was sent to Buchan. They were replaced by concrete, and this set of steps still runs from the garden to the beach.
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