What can spy novelists learn from the enduring popularity of The Thirty-Nine Steps?

A hundred years on from the publication of The Thirty-Nine Steps, what is John Buchan's legacy and how have spy novels endured in an age of supranational politics?

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I was first introduced to John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps in an English class at the age of 12. The cover depicted a smoke-wreathed figure atop a stone staircase. The blurb told us that this book had, “peril, murder and conspiracy… threading through one of the most famous thrillers ever written”.

This looked good, and started well – the narrator, Richard Hannay, was bored of living in London until he came home one evening to find his neighbour, Mr Scudder, asking for help and claiming to be dead. He went on to explain how he’d faked his own death to evade the international spy conspiracy he’d unearthed, but after a couple of racist comments in the narrative our teacher decided that we should read something else.

Several of us, though, overlooked what was obviously the product of a bygone age, and decided that the story itself would be exciting stuff if it were going to continue in the same vein of conspiracy and subterfuge. We asked Sir if we could each borrow a copy to read in our own time. To his credit, he agreed.

We were right; The Thirty-Nine Steps was indeed exciting stuff. The first chapter ended with Scudder dead (actually dead, this time). Hannay evaded the enemy by disguising himself as the milkman, got to St Pancras Station and caught a train to the Scottish Lowlands. There, he had various adventures – including the stealing of two cars and the blowing up of a cottage in which he was temporarily imprisoned – prior to the denouement on the Kentish coast. All in less than 140 pages!

The story was set in the months before the outbreak of the First World War, although it was not published until August 1915, first in a magazine, later as a book. The spy ring that Scudder was investigating, the sinister-sounding Black Stone, was German and they were trying to steal Britain’s war plans.

Buchan wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps while he was laid up with a duodenal ulcer in the early months of the First World War, during which he worked for the War Propaganda Bureau. It was his first go at writing what he called a “shocker”, which he described as a story in which, “the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible”.

He was drawing in the invasion fever that had gripped Edwardian Britain for years (it had already produced one classic novel, Erskine Childers’s The Riddle of the Sands, in 1903), but the outbreak of war had also been the inspiration for a story that was both thrilling and highly topical. It was by far the most successful of the many books he wrote. As well as being a prolific writer, he was also a politician whose career culminated in his appointment as Governor-General of Canada.

Hannay, who joined the Army when war was declared at the end of the novel, would return a year later in Greenmantle, which saw him recalled from the trenches to deal with a German plot to undermine the British Empire by kickstarting a jihad in the Middle East – a storyline that resonates with our post-9/11 world. A resourceful and cool-headed hero, a precursor to James Bond, he would later appear in three more “shockers”.

Spy novelists always have to adapt to the prevailing international situation in order to be relevant to their contemporary audiences. After the war, Hannay’s enemies became international criminal gangs. Likewise, Cold War authors like John le Carré, Frederick Forsyth and Tom Clancy had to find new antagonists to replace the KGB after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Today, Islamist terrorists are the preferred enemies for the likes of Terry Hayes.

Some thrillers date quickly, and it’s testament to Buchan’s storytelling skill that The Thirty-Nine Steps remains an enjoyable read today. At the time, soldiers in the trenches loved it. Many schoolboys who later worked in intelligence in the Second World War (among them Ian Fleming) read it.

Alfred Hitchcock liked the man-on-the-run plot device so much that, in addition to making a film version in 1935, he later used a similar plot for North by Northwest – thus creating a link between the passage in which Hannay evades a spotter-plane and the famous scene with the crop-duster in the latter. It would later be made into three other films and a West End play which is set to close in September after a run of nine years.

After devouring The Thirty-Nine Steps, my 12-year-old self found more of Buchan’s “shockers” in the school library, along with Cold War thrillers by the likes of Fleming and le Carré. I read as many of them as I could. My love of spy fiction had begun. 

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