Literature / The 39 Steps

The Thirty-Nine Steps is a thriller novel by John Buchan.

It's May 1914. Richard Hannay has just returned to London from Rhodesia. A man called Scudder meets him and tells him the tall tale of an international conspiracy determined to start a war. The conspirators are on Scudder's track and his only hope is to stage his own suicide and lie low for a while. Hannay agrees to hide Scudder in his London flat, but a few days later Scudder is murdered there by enemy agents and Hannay realizes he will be accused of the crime. Hunted by both policemen and enemy spies, Hannay takes to the Scottish moors in a desperate bid to stay one step ahead of the enemy until he can thwart their evil plans.

John Buchan was one of the world's first spy novelists, and did a similar job for the genre as J. R. R. Tolkien did for fantasy. The Thirty-Nine Steps is his most famous work, published in 1915 and set during the run-up to World War I. It was a huge popular success and owed much to its 1903 predecessor, Erskine Childers' The Riddle Of The Sands, and the adventure stories of H. Rider Haggard. Buchan began his writing career as a journalist, but enlisted at the start of World War I, working away from the front lines producing propaganda for the War Office. His experiences of the war, interwoven with a strong sense of national pride, a love of Africa and a belief in the strength of the British character, are themes in many of his novels.

Adapted four times for film (including once by Hitchcock), once for TV, once for the stage, several times for radio, and as a (linear) visual novel.

(NB: The book is The Thirty-Nine Steps. The 1978 film is The Thirty Nine Steps. The other adaptations are The 39 Steps.)

The sequels are:
  • Greenmantle: Hannay and four friends make their way through wartime Europe to Turkey, searching for the truth behind the rumours of a German secret weapon that could throw the entire Muslim world into the war on the Germans' side. Sometimes considered to be one of the best books Buchan ever wrote; Hitchcock wanted to film it for years but never got around to it.
  • Mr Standfast: An old enemy reappears and in the last pivotal days of World War I on the Western Front, Hannay wages a battle of wits. Finally introduces a Love Interest (she's worth the wait).
  • The Three Hostages: With World War I over, Sir Richard and Lady Hannay are enjoying a quiet life in the country, but when three young people are kidnapped and a mind-controlling genius starts leaving cryptic clues behind, the pair of former spy-hunters have to go back to work.
  • The Island of Sheep: Set roughly fourteen years after The Three Hostages. Hannay and his son Peter John Hannay have to protect an old friend from fortune-hunters.

This book and its sequels contain examples of:

  • Badass Normal: Compared to the villains and even some of the good guys—including the Love Interest—Hannay's intelligence is average, but he takes down world-ruling geniuses simply by refusing to give up.
  • The Baroness: Hilda von Einem from Greenmantle.
  • Berserk Button: Hannay has several. Bribe him, bully him, or turn traitor, and you'll see. Or don't. It never ends well.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Mary Hannay in The Three Hostages
  • Bond Villain Stupidity: In Mr Standfast. Apparently Ian Fleming was a fan of Buchan's. And how it shows. If you're going to pinion the hero in a Death Trap and declare that you have a Villainous Crush on his girlfriend, as an absolute minimum you should take his gun away before you head off leaving him completely unguarded. Otherwise you only have yourself to blame when he shoots himself free and turns up at the denouement.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Mr Standfast
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Scudder in The Thirty-Nine Steps is a spy who, while very competent, believes in every anti-Semitic conspiracy theory under the sun. He ends up assassinated, showing the problems which come from pursuing false conspiracies and overlooking real ones, but he is still treated with respect by his colleagues prior to that.
  • Captain Crash: Almost every car that Richard Hannay gets into ends up either careering off the road or pre-emptively breaking down.
  • Chaste Hero: Beyond the obvious lack of time for philandering in the first couple of books, Hannay is till his marriage terribly shy around women.
  • The Chessmaster: John Blenkiron among others.
  • Chest of Medals: Hannay's is alluded to in Mr Standfast—especially funny if you've ever read Exodus28:15ff.
    They gave me my battalion before the Somme, and I came out of that weary battle after the first big September fighting with a crack in my head and a D.S.O. I had received a C.B. for the Erzerum business, so what with these and my Matabele and South African medals and the Legion of Honour, I had a chest like the High Priest's breastplate.
  • Clear My Name: The Thirty-Nine Steps and Mr Standfast
  • Conspiracy Theory: One involving vengeful Jewish financiers in the first book, but this is later jossed in-universe when it turns out that the man who told this to Hannay wasn't 100% sure if he could trust Hannay with his findings on the real conspiracy (which didn't involve Jewish people at all) and instead just made something up using the prevailing bigotry of the time.
  • Contrived Coincidence: The series is known for its many improbable coincidences.
    • Out of the entire housing stock of Scotland, Hannay just happens to enter the house being rented by the spy ringleaders. And the room they lock him in just happens to have explosives in the cupboard.
    • In Mr Standfast the remote and inaccessible Scottish cave Hannay is staking out is visited on that very evening by a possible antagonist from earlier in the book. He turns out to be a complete innocent who likes mountain climbing and just happens to be in the area.
  • Cool Old Guy: Peter Pienaar, who taught Four-Star Badass Hannay most of what he knows about disguise, spying, and veldtcraft. Will calmly walk into occupied Germany or across No Man's Land if necessary. Especially good at breaking out of prison, knocking you out with a well-aimed tea-tray, snuffing the lights in a public-house with a revolver, or rescuing your kidnapped Love Interest. Eventually discovers his life's calling as an elderly RAF air ace.
  • Criminal Mind Games: In The Three Hostages
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Scudder presents the conspiracy as being masterminded by the Jews, but it's later revealed that this is a flight of fancy based on his own prejudices.
  • Determinator: Probably Richard Hannay's defining character trait as well as his preferred modus operandi, both mental and physical—he will keep running long after anyone else would have lain down and died from exhaustion, exposure, injuries, or being blown up.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: In Mr Standfast.
  • Fake Defector: Various characters in Greenmantle
  • Five-Man Band:
    • The Hero: Richard Hannay
    • The Lancer: Peter Pienaar
    • The Smart Guy: Sandy Arbuthnot, John S. Blenkiron
    • The Big Guy: Blenkiron, Geordie Hamilton
    • The Chick: Mary Lamington
  • Four-Star Badass: Hannay's rapid promotion to Major-General is entirely due to him being one determined badass.
  • Gentleman Adventurer: The Thirty-Nine Steps takes place after Hannay has retired from a busy and dangerous life as a mining engineer in Africa; he does have the leisure to pick up Scudder's adventure, but rather jumps at the opportunity because the idleness is driving him crazy. Then it's averted in the sequels, with Hannay becoming a hard-working Army officer.
  • Gentleman Snarker: Richard Hannay may be something of an idealist, but like all Britons he is perfectly capable of a few zingers.
    He was a man of remarkable qualities, which would have brought him to the highest distinction in the Stone Age.
  • Good Old Fisticuffs
  • Go Seduce My Archnemesis: Mary has to play along with the bad guy wooing her in Mr Standfast.
  • Happily Married: The Three Hostages, The Island of Sheep
  • Heroic R.R.O.D.: Happens around once per book. That's what happens when you're a Determinator not Made of Iron.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: There's at least two in Mr Standfast
  • Heroic Self-Deprecation: Hannay would like you to think that he's a 'cunning coward', despite all the crazy things he's done.
    I'm not in this show for honor and glory, though. I want to do the best I can, but I wish to Heaven it was over. All I think of is coming out of it with a whole skin.
  • Honor Before Reason: With a lampshade! Offer Richard Hannay a bribe so he'll look the other way while you make your country pay twice for the munitions it's going to use to bomb the hell out of the Anzacs at Gallipoli, and he'll make damn sure you don't get away with it... Oh wait, poor Anzacs. Especially impressive because it means Hannay's disguise as barge foreman is working so well he's even convinced himself he's working for the Germans!
  • Hospital Hottie: Again, Mary
  • Humble Hero: Richard Hannay would like you to believe that he's a coward who only does awesome things when his temper gets the better of him. To be fair, he's actually pretty convincing.
  • I Can't Believe A Girl Like You Would Notice Me!
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Mr Standfast
  • I'm Dying, Please Take My MacGuffin:
    • Scudder and his notebook at the beginning of The Thirty-Nine Steps.
    • In Greenmantle, a dying man staggers into a Kashnir outpost carrying a bit of paper on which is scrawled, 'Kasredin', 'v1' and 'cancer'. Cue race against time to decipher same.
  • James Bondage: Mr Standfast. From which he extracts himself with a combination of astronomy, trajectories, brute strength and really good shooting.
  • Karmic Death: Medina in The Three Hostages, who would have survived if he hadn't just disabled Hannay, the one man able to save him.
  • Lady of Adventure: Mary, when duty calls.
  • Locking MacGyver in the Store Cupboard: Locking a former mining engineer in a basement that happens to contain high explosives wasn't the best plan.
  • Majorly Awesome: Hannay, during Greenmantle.
  • Master of Disguise: The Big Bad of Mr Standfast and Sandy Arbuthnot in Greenmantle and The Three Hostages. To a lesser extent, Hannay and his friend Peter Pienaar in Greenmantle.
  • May–December Romance: Hannay and Mary.
  • Mistaken for Cheating: Utterly, totally averted in The Three Hostages
  • Nice Guy: Richard Hannay is a rare protagonist example.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Several, but especially Karolides (for Franz Ferdinand) and Sandy Arbuthnot (for T.E. Lawrence).
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: In Greenmantle Hannay begins to unload one of these on Stumm. Averted in that his Unstoppable Rage evaporates once the fight is won:
    I had no particular ill-will left against Stumm. He was a man of remarkable qualities, which would have brought him to the highest distinction in the Stone Age.
  • Officer and a Gentleman
  • Paper-Thin Disguise: Justified good and proper. Taking on a new personality is more effective than new clothes. The only problem is that to successfully pose as harmless idiots the characters run the risk of Becoming the Mask and losing their intellectual edge!
  • Properly Paranoid: Even the Reasonable Authority Figures find it difficult to believe Hannay's wild story in The Thirty-Nine Steps.
  • Rage Breaking Point: In Greenmantle, Hannay's disguise as a backveldt Boer is given away when Stumm's bullying, intimidation, and insults finally push him beyond this.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: Karolides (whose real world equivalent is Franz Ferdinand) and real life figures Kaiser Wilhelm and Ismail Enver all make appearances.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Definitely on the Idealist end of the scale owing to Buchan's convictions about the war. However his idealism need not be mistaken for ignorance or shallowness. The books treat Germans sympathetically (including the Kaiser) and Buchan witnessed trench warfare firsthand as a newspaper correspondent.
  • The So-Called Coward: Lancelot Wake is a sensitive artistic pacifist unable to handle himself in a fight—so naturally Hannay views him with contempt. Turns out he's a pacifist for truly idealistic reasons and is quite possibly the bravest person in the book.
  • Spy Fiction: Basically invented the trope; the Beer and Martini elements both have roots here.
  • The Spymaster: Sir Walter Bullivant, John Blenkiron and Mary Lamington for the allied cause, and Moxon Ivery alias der Graf von Schwabing for the Germans.
  • Stern Chase: It's just not a Buchan novel if at some point there isn't an awesome Stern Chase.
  • They Look Just Like Everyone Else: Those two young men playing lawn tennis? Members of a sinister international conspiracy. That airplane in the sky? Just sent someone to kill you. That nice old buffer? Evil incarnate. No wonder even Hannay begins to wonder if he's paranoid.
  • This Is no Time to Panic: Repeatedly invoked as Hannay finds himself trapped, alone, and helpless.
  • Unstoppable Rage: Hannay can be pushed into this with severe bullying, as Stumm finds out in Greenmantle.

Adaptations with their own trope pages include:

Other adaptations provide examples of:

  • For Doom the Bell Tolls: The 1938 radio adaptation by The Mercury Theatre on the Air starts off with the ringing of heavy, ominous church bells as Richard Hannay, a murder suspect on the run from the police and enemy secret agents, is trying to catch a train.
  • In Medias Res: The 1938 radio adaptation by The Mercury Theatre on the Air starts with Hannay already on the run. Later, Hannay recounts in a long flashback how things came to this.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Ida Lupino, playing an Englishwoman in the 1937 radio adaptation by the Lux Radio Theatre.

Alternative Title(s): Greenmantle, Mr Standfast, The Three Hostages, The Island Of Sheep