Codes and spies and stuff

The Thirty-Nine Steps
by John Buchan

Reading this book appealed because I love the Hitchcock film and I was looking for a couple of short books to read before embarking on 1Q84.

Richard Hannay is an intriguing lead character. He has made himself a small pile of money mining in Zimbabwe (or Rhodesia, as it was then) and come to London to enjoy his earnings, but quickly finds himself bored and lonely. So it’s almost a stroke of luck when he discovers a Mr Scudder has been murdered in his flat, just days after the victim confided in him that he has uncovered an assassination plot that could lead to war.

As prime suspect in the murder, Hannay flees London for remote Scotland with both the British police and a German spy ring close at his heels. His resourcefulness and acting skills ensure there is never a dull moment. And he has Scudder’s coded notebook, with a mysterious message about 39 steps.

I really liked this. It’s an enjoyable romp and yet any reader knows that the war Hannay is working so hard to avoid is inevitable (the dates are clearly given as May and June 1914), which gives it a sad air. The descriptions of Scotland are beautiful but brief because there is no space here for asides. It’s 107 pages of action and, as such, was perfect for translation to film, but there was still, as always, something lost in transition. The book explains why Hannay is how he is and briefly summarises the political state of Europe, neither of which is in the film, as I recall.

First published 1915.

2 thoughts on “Codes and spies and stuff

  1. matthew self March 8, 2012 at 10:20 pm

    I recently read Witch Wood by Buchan, which was quite good. A strange mix of early modern religious politics and occult thriller. Buchan himself was a fairly interesting figure.

    hope you get on well with
    IQ84. I really enjoyed it, but at 900 pages, there are times you might wish the pace would pick up a bit! I think I can only describe it as ‘unmistakably Murikami.’

  2. Nose in a book March 8, 2012 at 10:25 pm

    Matt I’m actually 2/3 through 1Q84 already (I wrote this review a while ago) and I’m not loving it. In fact I would go so far to say it’s my least favourite Murakami. But maybe book 3 will turn it around for me.

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