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Literature / The Thirty-Nine Steps

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

It's May 1914. Richard Hannay has just returned to London from years in Rhodesia, and he is bored. Then, one evening, he returns home to discover his downstairs neighbour has been murdered. That night his supposedly dead neighbour, 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 was 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 three 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.)

Richard Hannay returned in five more novels: Greenmantle, Mr. Standfast, The Three Hostages, The Courts of the Morningnote , and The Island of Sheep.

Adaptations with their own trope pages include:

The Thirty-Nine Steps contains examples of:

  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Scudder 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.
  • Character Tics: In the climactic scene, Hannay has to decide whether a man he's watching is the master spy behind the plot (who is also a Master Actor) or just an innocent bystander. He's almost convinced the man is just an innocent bystander when the man makes a finger-tapping gesture that Hannay recognises from when he was a captive of the spy ring earlier in the book.
  • Clear My Name: Hannay is pursued by the police as well as the spy ring, because Scudder was murderered in his flat. He has to steer clear of both long enough to pass on Scudder's information to the appropriate authorities.
  • Contrived Coincidence: The series is known for its many improbable coincidences; Buchan declares in the foreword to The Thirty-Nine Steps that he regards them as a characteristic and necessary attribute of the genre. For one example: 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. And of course Hannay just happens to be a mining engineer who knows just how to use them safely. Well, more or less safely.
  • 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; what's more, no one of those he talks to takes the possibility of Jewish conspiracy seriously in the first place.
  • 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.
  • Everybody Smokes: It even helps Richard Hannay, as he grabs some pipe tobacco from the jar in his flat before leaving for Scotland, only to find that that's where Scudder hid his notebook before being killed.
  • Faking the Dead: Scudder fakes his own death at the start in order to throw the conspirators off his trail. By the end of the first chapter, though, they've caught up with him and he's dead for real.
  • Funetik Aksent: Buchan depicts Scottish accents phonetically.
  • 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.
  • Good Old Fisticuffs
  • Heroic RRoD: At one point Hannay's exertions catch up with him and he is bedbound for several days with a relapse of the malaria he caught in his Africa days.
  • 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 honour 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.
  • 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.
  • Hypocritical Humor: In a minor incident, Hannay encounters a Scotsman who is clearly drunk but proclaims himself to be a teetotaller. Further conversation reveals that the man has sworn off whisky, but sees no contradiction in getting smashed on brandy instead.
  • I'm Dying, Please Take My MacGuffin: Scudder and his notebook.
  • Improvisational Ingenuity: Richard Hannay is good at the Limited Time flavour of this. There are several occasions when he just goes for an Indy Ploy.
  • Locking MacGyver in the Store Cupboard: The bad guys lock Hannay in a barn with a sturdy door ... and a cupboard that, is locked, but not so sturdy. When Hannay breaks it open, he finds that it contains high explosives. Being a former mining engineer, he knows (almost) exactly how to use this.
  • Master Actor: Hannay, quoting his old friend Peter Pienaar, states that acting the part is a necessary component of any disguise, and may even be the most important part of any disguise, more than costume or make-up. "A fool tries to look different: a clever man looks the same and is different." The greatest masters of disguise in the series can appear to be a completely different person without any costume or props at all.
  • Master of Disguise: One of the leaders of the spy ring, who successfully impersonates the head of the Royal Navy at a meeting surrounded by people who know the man he's impersonating. Near the end, there's a scene where Hannay knows that a certain person must be him in disguise but still has trouble seeing through the deception.
  • Nice Guy: Richard Hannay is a rare protagonist example.
  • Noble Bigot: Scudder, whose anti-Semitism actually undermines his effectiveness as an agent as it makes it difficult for spymasters like Bullivant to take him seriously.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Karolides stands in for Franz Ferdinand as the international figure whose assassination makes war inevitable.
  • Once per Episode: As in each of the first three novels, Hannay is bedbound for several days due to a relapse of the malaria he caught in his Africa days, and ends up figuring out something important as a result of having nothing to do but lie and think.
  • Pinned to the Wall: When Scudder is killed, Hannay finds that the knife has been stuck through his chest so deeply his body is pinned to the floor.
  • Prevent the War: The Thirty-Nine Steps begins with this as Hannay's motivation, trying to warn the authorities of the impending assassination of the Greek Prime Minister, Karolides, which will tip the world into war. Since Buchan wrote the book when the War had already begun, failure on that score is a foregone conclusion, and toward the end of the book the emphasis shifts toward preventing the spies escaping with the information they've gathered about Britain's defences.
  • Properly Paranoid: Even the Reasonable Authority Figures find it difficult to believe Hannay's wild story.
  • Refuge in Audacity: The Black Stone spy-ring are Germans trying to steal Britain's war plans. One of them is able to successfully disguise himself as the First Sea Lord (the professional head of the Royal Navy, no less) and attend a high-level government meeting; it's only by chance that Hannay is present when he's leaving the meeting and recognises him.
  • Rich Boredom: The Thirty-Nine Steps begins with Hannay, having retired young and financially secure after a successful career in Africa, utterly bored and on the verge of packing it all in and going back to Africa just for something to do. Then he meets Scudder and gets caught up in a thoroughly un-boring espionage caper.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: The assassination of Karolides (whose real world equivalent is Franz Ferdinand).
  • Shout-Out: The literary innkeeper describes Hannay's story as "pure Rider Haggard and Conan Doyle".
  • Spy Fiction: Basically invented the trope; the Beer and Martini elements both have roots here.
  • The Spymaster: Sir Walter Bullivant.
  • Stern Chase: It's just not a Buchan novel if at some point there isn't an awesome Stern Chase.
  • Stiff Upper Lip: Richard Hannay.
  • 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.
  • Trust Password: When Hannay is at last able to meet with the Foreign Office official who can act on Scudder's information, part of his instructions for the meeting is that they will make themselves known to each other by whistling "Annie Laurie".
  • We Hardly Knew Ye: Scudder, the freelance spy who Hannay agrees to let stay in his flat at the start of The Thirty-Nine Steps, is dead by the end of the first chapter.
  • Wrongful Accusation Insurance: At one point, Hannay reflects that while he's not the murderer everyone thinks he is, he has at that point among other things lied to almost everyone he's come across, impersonated a political candidate and a road-worker, and has hijacked at least two expensive cars. There's no mention of him getting into any official trouble over any of it; presumably the Foreign Office smoothed things over in thanks for him helping save the country.