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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.)

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.
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  • The Courts of the Morning: Nearly every member of the recurring cast except Sir Richard and Lady Hannay (who for once successfully protest that they're retired and have a family to look after, and don't appear after the first few chapters) get involved in stopping a criminal mastermind plotting world domination in South America.
  • The Island of Sheep: Set roughly fourteen years after The Three Hostages. Hannay and his son Peter John Hannay have to protect the family of an old friend from fortune-hunters.

This book and its sequels contain examples of:

  • Action Dad:
    • Richard Hannay in The Island of Sheep — he's accompanied by his son, Peter John.
    • In the same novel, Valdemar Haraldsen is also this as his daughter Anna is involved. Haraldsen actually becomes The Berserker when he single-handedly captures the main villain and throws him off a cliff.
  • Age-Gap Romance:
    • When Richard Hannay meets Mary Lamington in Mr Standfast, he's approaching forty and she's seventeen. Hannay is somewhat self-conscious about the age gap, and Mary occasionally tweaks him about it, but nobody regards it as a serious obstacle. It's noted that Mary is mature for her age compared to what she might have been if she hadn't spent the last few years playing an active role in the war effort.
    • There's a similar age gap between Sandy Arbuthnot and Barbara Dasent in The Courts of the Morning: he's in his early forties, and she's twenty-four.
  • Attempted Rape: In The Courts of the Morning, the bad guys take Janet Roylance hostage after things start going against them. She's kept in a locked room at nights for her own protection, because the mooks are really not nice people and some of them have designs on her, and their leaders no longer have enough influence to keep them in line by word alone. One of them manages to gain access to her room, but fortunately the heroes arrive to break her out in the nick of time.
  • Bait-and-Switch: Near the end of Mr Standfast, Hannay learns that von Schwabing has abducted Mary, and rushes to the villain's lair, where he finds von Schwabing standing over a figure in a chair — end of chapter. The next chapter is a flashback to Mary's abduction, and ends with the revelation that she was rescued by their colleagues before reaching the villain's lair. The chapter after that identifies the figure in the chair as Blenkiron, come to tell von Schwabing that the jig is up.
  • Banana Republic: The Courts of the Morning is set in Olifa, a South American republic whose President and cabinet are in the pocket of a multinational mining corporation whose copper exports are the mainstay of its prosperity.
  • The Baroness: Hilda von Einem from Greenmantle, a seductive and ruthlessly intelligent German noblewoman in charge of the secret German scheme. Hannay is resistant to her sexual wiles but admits to finding himself jealous of her attention and foolishly pleased when she decides he's dangerous enough to actively try and kill. There are hints that she's attracted to Sandy Arbuthnot, Hannay's colleague who infiltrates her organization; her biggest loss of composure is when she learns that he's been a mole for the British side all along.
  • Bedouin Rescue Service: Played with in The Courts of the Morning. Archie Roylance and Geordie Hamilton are stranded in the highlands of Olifa after a plane crash and are at the ends of their endurance when they're found by a group of native warriors. It turns out not to be an entirely chance meeting: the warriors are working with Luis de Marzaniga, another of the heroes who had been previously established to have a rapport with the local tribes, and were in the area looking for the same thing Archie and Geordie came looking for when their plane crashed.
  • The Berserker: In the climactic battle of The Island of Sheep, Haraldsen goes berserkr and single-handedly captures the Big Bad and throws him off a cliff.
  • 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 gets ferocious in The Three Hostages. During the climactic confrontation with the villain, he laughs in Richard and Sandy's faces, but Mary frightens the life out of him.
  • Boarding School: In The Island of Sheep, Anna Haraldsen's father has placed her in a boarding school under an assumed name to keep her from the attention of the villains who are after him. When she first appears in the story, she talks and acts just like an Angela Brazil character, though it wears off somewhat the longer she spends away from the school.
  • 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.
    • In The Three Hostages, the criminal mastermind has ample opportunities to do away with Richard Hannay but opts not to do so.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Mr Standfast — the villains have been defeated and the Allied victory secured, but Peter Pienaar and Launcelot Wake each make heroic sacrifices in the final push to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
  • Brandishment Bluff: At a key moment in The Three Hostages, Mary bluffs the criminal mastermind with a small green bottle that she implies contains a powerful acid, but is actually just a bottle of perfume.
  • 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.
  • Character Overlap: The Hannay novels explicitly occupy the same universe as many of Buchan's other novels — those set in the (then) present day at least. The Author Avatar Sir Edward Leithen, the protagonist of The Power-House among others, is a member of the same gentlemen's club as Hannay and his friends (they even tell stories to each other in The Runagates Club). Leithen encounters Archie Roylance in John Macnab, and Archie in turn works with Dickson McCunn in Huntingtower and The House of the Four Winds.
  • Character Tics:
    • In the climactic scene of The Thirty-Nine Steps, 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.
    • Similarly, near the climax of The Island of Sheep, Hannay begins to penetrate the facade of that novel's master of disguise when he recognises the way he's standing.
  • 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.
    • Sandy Arbuthnot, having resisted the charms of Hilda von Einem in Greenmantle, is this until he meets Barbara Dasent in The Courts of the Morning.
  • Chekhov's Boomerang: In Mr Standfast, Hannay is given a decoration to wear on his pocket watch to identify him to another British intelligence agent. They meet, look at each others' watches, and the story proceeds. Several chapters later, when Hannay is alone and in desperate straits, a complete stranger (also, it turns out, a British intelligence agent, in the area on unrelated business) notices his watch decoration and offers him assistance.
  • Chekhov's Gun: In The Island of Sheep, Peter John has taken up falconry and spends most of the novel toting around his falcon Morag because her training is at a stage where they can't be separated for long periods. Thus when he stumbles on the villains' base near the end of the novel, he is able to send Morag to his father with a warning message.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: In The Three Hostages, Sandy mentions that he distrusts Dominick Medina because of the way Medina treated his friend Lavater. Lavater turns out to have a larger role in the story than is immediately obvious.
  • The Chessmaster:
    • Mr Standfast develops into a contest between two chessmasters, Graf von Schwabing on the German side and John S. Blenkiron on the British. Several times it turns out that von Schwabing has known the heroes' moves all along and acted against them while letting them think they were undetected — but in the end it turns out Blenkiron is even better at that game than he is.
    • Villains like Hilda von Einem (Greenmantle) and Dominick Medina (The Three Hostages) also count.
  • Chest of Medals: Hannay's is alluded to in Mr Standfast—especially funny if you've ever read Exodus 28:15ff.
    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:
    • In The Thirty-Nine Steps, 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.
    • In Mr Standfast, Hannay goes undercover as a visiting colonial named Brand to investigate a spy ring, but after the bad guys rumble him they turn the tables by denouncing Brand to the police as a suspected spy, leading to him once more finding himself on the run.
  • 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.
    • 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.
    • In Greenmantle, it just so happens that Hannay is in Lisbon at the same time as his old friend Peter Pienaar, who is more than willing to join him on his mission.
    • 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.
    • At the start of The Island of Sheep, Hannay recalls an old acquaintance, Lombard (who he hasn't seen for years), after hearing his name mentioned in a speech. Guess who's in the same compartment as Hannay on the train home?
  • 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, the evil mastermind has a penchant for sending the police taunting riddles in verse. It leads to his downfall when a fortunate happenstance of the kind Hannay seems to attract gives him a chance to unravel the latest one.
  • Cut Phone Lines:
    • Used several times in The Courts of the Morning, by both the heroes and the villains.
    • In The Island of Sheep, the villains cut the phone line to Haraldsen's house before their attack, to prevent him calling for help.
  • Cyanide Pill: When von Schwabing is captured at the end of Mr Standfast, he attempts to commit suicide with a poison pill hidden in his cigarette case, but is foiled by an alert guard.
  • Dead Guy Junior: Peter John Hannay is named in honour of Peter Pienaar and John Blenkiron, of whom the former died heroically before his namesake was born.
  • Dead Person Impersonation: A heroic example in The Three Hostages, where Sandy infiltrates the villain's organisation by impersonating somebody already trusted by the villain who had died but of whose death the villain had not yet learned.
  • Death by Childbirth: Anna Haraldsen's mother in The Island of Sheep.
  • 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.
  • Diabolical Mastermind:
    • Hilda von Einem in Greenmantle. She's brilliant, ruthless and more dangerous than any of the male antagonists. Blenkiron is of the opinion that a man would not have been able to achieve what she has done.
    • Otto von Schwabing in Mr Standfast, the German spy and Master of Disguise (two other characters, the pacifist leader Moxon Ivery and the American journalist Clarence Donne, are actually his aliases), who is plotting to undermine the British war effort.
    • Dominick Medina in The Three Hostages is a well-known and respected public figure who's also the head of an international crime syndicate.
  • Died in Your Arms Tonight: At the end of The Courts of the Morning, the reformed Castor is murdered, and dies held in the arms of the woman he loves.
  • Direct Line to the Author: The Three Hostages is prefaced with a dedication to a young fan who had written asking for more about Hannay, in which Buchan claims that he recently met Hannay socially and was told by him the story that follows.
  • Distressed Dude: Hannay gets lured into a Death Trap in Mr Standfast. From which he extracts himself with a combination of astronomy, trajectories, brute strength and really good shooting.
  • Dragon Ascendant:
    • The Dragon of The Thirty-Nine Steps is the Big Bad of Mr Standfast.
    • The Dragon of The Courts of the Morning doesn't survive, but the most senior surviving henchman becomes the Big Bad of The Island of Sheep.
  • Dreaming of Things to Come: In Greenmantle, Hannay has a recurring nightmare of being pursued through a valley and trying to reach a particular hill where he will find safety. At the end of the novel, when he and his colleagues are fleeing the villains, he sees the hill from his dream and they have their showdown there.
  • Driven to Suicide: When the police round up the criminal gang in The Three Hostages, several of the ringleaders commit suicide to avoid capture and public disgrace.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: In Mr Standfast.
  • Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: In The Three Hostages, when the villain learns that the heroes have discovered and captured the secret location where the third hostage was being held, overseen by the villain's mother, his first reaction is fear for his mother's safety, and only then concern for the failure of his plot and the security of his global criminal conspiracy.
  • Everybody Smokes: It even helps Richard Hannay, as he grabs some pipe tobacco from the jar in his flat before leaving for Scotland in The Thirty-Nine Steps, only to find that that's where Scudder hid his notebook before being killed.
  • Fake Defector: Various characters in Greenmantle
  • Faking the Dead: In The Courts of the Morning, Blenkiron fakes his death near the beginning to allay the Big Bad's suspicions that Blenkiron is on to him. Later in the book, Sandy fakes the death of his cover identity once it's outlived its usefulness, so that he can move on to the next stage of the operation without anyone wondering where he's disappeared to.
  • Fantastic Drug: In The Courts of the Morning, part of the Big Bad's scheme depends on a drug called "asturas", derived from a rare plant found in the mountains of Olifa, which has exactly the properties required to make the plot work.
  • Feed the Mole: In Mr Standfast, Hannay is asked to help uncover a spy ring that's leaking British military secrets to the Germans. He assumes at first that the aim is to catch them in the act and arrest them, but Blenkiron quickly and firmly corrects him: they want the ring discovered intact if possible, so that it can be used to feed the Germans with disinformation.
  • Fictional Counterpart:
    • The garden city of Biggleswick, which Hannay visits while working undercover in Mr Standfast, is based on Letchworth in Hertfordshire.
    • Olifa, the fictional South American country in The Courts of the Morning, is based on Peru.
    • More obviously, the Norland Islands in The Island of Sheep are the Faroe Islands.
  • Fingore: In The Three Hostages, Hannay loses parts of a thumb and two fingers when the villain shoots his gun out of his hand.
  • Foil: In Mr Standfast, the supporting character Launcelot Wake acts as a foil to the main villain, Otto von Schwabing. Von Schwabing approves of the War and has encouraged it for his own ends, but (although a bold man in his own world of espionage) loses his nerve when he gets caught in the field of actual battle. Wake is a committed pacifist on idealistic grounds, but no coward, and shows great courage when he starts working in the war zone first as a Red Cross worker and then as a messenger. In the penultimate chapter, their deaths occur in quick succession and are directly contrasted, with Wake being fatally wounded while carrying a vital message under heavy fire and von Schwabing getting himself killed by cracking up and running out in front of his own side's guns.
  • Forged Message: In Mr Standfast, Mary is lured out of safety into the villain's clutches by a forged message purporting to be from Hannay; when he sees it afterward, Hannay admits it to be a convincing imitation of his handwriting and prose style.
  • Four-Star Badass: Richard Hannay, who is commissioned as a Captain at the start of the First World War and ends it as a Major-General with knighthood and a Chest of Medals.
  • Funetik Aksent:
    • Buchan depicts Scottish accents phonetically, and with sufficient faithfulness that several different accents can be distinguished between the various characters Hannay meets on his Scottish adventure in Mr Standfast.
    • Lampshaded and averted with Jack Godstow in The Island of Sheep; Hannay-the-narrator says he's not going to attempt to represent Jack's Cotswold accent, and paraphrases everything he says instead of reporting it as direct speech.
  • 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: Richard and Mary in The Three Hostages, The Island of Sheep
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Given that he was writing in the early twentieth century, Buchan has his moments — most notably, Richard Hannay is known to his friends as 'Dick'.
  • Heroic RRoD: Happens around once per book, at least in the three set around the War. That's what happens when you're a Determinator not Made of Iron.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: There's at least two in Mr Standfast during the final battle. Launcelot Wake volunteers to carry a vital message over hazardous terrain and is fatally wounded, but gets the message through. Peter Pienaar rams a German plane with his own, killing himself along with the German pilot, to prevent the German returning to base with information that would turn the tide of the battle.
  • 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.
  • Hiding Behind the Language Barrier:
    • In Greenmantle, there are several occasions when Richard Hannay and Peter Pienaar converse in Cape Dutch (or Sesutu, if there might be Dutch speakers around) to keep the content of their conversation secret.
    • Elsewhere in Greenmantle, Sandy Arbuthnot and another Scottish officer have a brief conversation in English but with an impenetrably thick Scottish accent while surrounded by people who, if they know English at all, have enough trouble with standard pronunciation.
  • Historical Domain Character: Kaiser Wilhelm II gets a sympathetic portrayal when he briefly meets Richard Hannay in Greenmantle (all the more impressive when you consider that that book was published during the First World War).
  • Home by Christmas: Greenmantle begins in December 1915, so even the most optimistic don't believe the War will be over by Christmas, but while traveling through Germany Hannay overhears a soldier confidently asserting that it will all be over by next Christmas.
  • 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: Near the beginning of Mr Standfast, Hannay goes to visit his wounded comrade Blaikie in hospital and is struck by the beauty and charm of one of the nurses. (When he asks Blaikie who she is, Blaikie says he hasn't noticed her in particular, which Hannay takes as a sign of how unwell he still is.) Hannay and the nurse meet again not long afterward, and this time he gets her name: Mary Lamington. They end up getting married.
  • 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.
  • Hunting "Accident": The villain attempts to arrange one for Hannay in The Three Hostages.
  • Hypnotic Eyes: In Greenmantle, Hilda von Einem tries them on Hannay.
    The eyes grew large and luminous, and I was conscious for just an instant of some will battling to subject mine.
  • Hypnotize the Princess: In The Three Hostages, the villain is a master hypnotist, and hypnotizes each of the hostages so they forget who they really and believe they belong in the place where they're being held.
  • Hypocritical Humor: In a minor incident in The Thirty-Nine Steps, 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 Can't Believe A Girl Like You Would Notice Me!
  • I Gave My Word: In The Island of Sheep, Hannay gets involved in the action because, long ago, he swore an oath to Marius Haraldsen that he would protect his son. Lombard, who swore the same oath, is an even better example of the trope — unlike Hannay he has settled into a comfortable life and has no Gentleman Adventurer experience to draw on, but he is mortally offended when Hannay suggests that nobody would blame him for sitting it out.
  • 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', 'v. 1' and 'cancer'. Cue race against time to decipher same.
  • Immune to Mind Control: Hannay is naturally resistant to being hypnotized, which stands him in good stead against the masterminds of Greenmantle and The Three Hostages, both of whom use mysterious Oriental mesmerism techniques on people they want within their control.
  • Improvisational Ingenuity: Richard Hannay is good at the Limited Time flavour of this. There are several occasions, particularly in The Thirty-Nine Steps, when he just goes for an Indy Ploy.
  • Intro-Only Point of View: The Courts of the Morning begins with Hannay narrating in first person as usual, for three chapters of him being approached to come out of retirement, discussing things with Sandy, Archie and Janet, and finally deciding definitively to stay home and not get involved. From chapter 4 the narration switches to third person and starts following Archie and Janet instead, and Hannay is not seen again until the beginning of the next novel.
  • It's Personal: Mr Standfast becomes this for Hannay when he learns that the spy master he's up against is the last surviving leader of the spy ring he helped defeat in The Thirty-Nine Steps and even more so when he learns that they're both in love with the same woman.
  • I Will Only Slow You Down: In The Courts of the Morning, when Archie Roylance and Geordie Hamilton are stranded halfway up a mountain and Geordie is seriously injured, Geordie tries to tell Archie to leave him behind. Archie of course refuses, and they both survive.
  • Just Between You and Me: When the evil mastermind captures Hannay in Mr Standfast, he can't resist an extended gloat about how he's outmaneuvered British Intelligence and been one step ahead of them the whole way. He does it again when he thinks he has Blenkiron in his clutches, only for Blenkiron to calmly cut him off and explain how thoroughly he's been beaten at his own game.
  • Karmic Death: Dominick Medina in The Three Hostages, who would have survived if he hadn't just disabled Hannay, the one man able to save him.
  • Lampshade Hanging: No doubt realising that most of the people who enjoyed his 'shockers' would probably not appreciate his more serious non-fiction, Buchan wrote the following foreword to The Three Hostages:
    Dedication to a young gentleman of Eton Collegenote 
    Honoured sir,
    On your last birthday a well-meaning godfather presented you with a volume of mine, since you had been heard on occasion to express approval of my works. The book dealt with a somewhat arid branch of historical research, and it did not please you. You wrote to me, I remember, complaining that I had 'let you down', and summoning me, as I valued your respect, to 'pull myself together'. In particular you demanded to hear more of the doings of Richard Hannay, a gentleman for whom you professed a liking. I, too, have a liking for Sir Richard, and when I met him the other day (he is now a country neighbour), I observed that his left hand had been considerably mauled, an injury which I knew had not been due to the war. He was so good as to tell me the tale of an unpleasant business in which he had recently been engaged, and to give me permission to retell it for your benefit ... So I herewith present it to you, in the hope that in the eyes of you and your friends it may atone for certain other writings of mine with which you have been afflicted by those in authority.
    June 1924
  • Lazy Alias: Richard Hannay usually averts this when working under cover, but sometimes he slips up. Having used the pseudonym 'Cornelius Brandt' in Greenmantle, he opts for the almost-identical 'Cornelius Brand' in Mr Standfast.
  • Literary Allusion Title: The title of Mr Standfast comes from The Pilgrim's Progress, which is also alluded to throughout the text.
  • Locking MacGyver in the Store Cupboard: In The Thirty-Nine Steps, the bad guys lock Hannay in a barn with sturdy doors and windows... and a cupboard that, although locked, is not sturdy, and turns out when Hannay breaks it open to contain high explosives which the former mining engineer Hannay knows how to safely implement.
  • Majorly Awesome: Hannay, during Greenmantle.
  • Mama Bear: Mary gets ferocious in The Three Hostages in defence of the youngest hostage, a small boy. She's not his mother, but it's made clear that her protectiveness toward him is driven by the thought of how she'd feel if her own small boy were in the same situation.
  • Master Actor: Hannay, quoting 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:
    • Otto von Schwabing, the Big Bad of Mr Standfast, to the point that on occasions Hannay spends hours in his company without recognizing him, and on one occasion Hannay knows that a certain person must be him in disguise but still has trouble seeing through the deception. About halfway through Mr Standfast, Hannay happens to see von Schwabing's true self show through in an unguarded moment, and from that point on is always able to recognise him whenever he sees him but not when he only hears him speaking out of the darkness.
    • Sandy Arbuthnot in Greenmantle, The Three Hostages, The Courts of the Morning and The Island of Sheep. In each, there's a scene where Hannay meets him in disguise without having the slightest clue that it's him, even though they're friends and have lived in close quarters for an extended period. (In The Courts of the Morning, since Hannay is not involved, the surprise falls on Archie Roylance instead.)
    • To a lesser extent, Hannay and his friend Peter Pienaar in Greenmantle.
  • More Deadly Than the Male: Hilda von Einem in Greenmantle is a brilliant and ruthless chessmaster, and more dangerous than any of the male antagonists. Blenkiron explicitly gives it as his opinion that a man would not have been able to achieve what she has done.
  • Narrative Profanity Filter: Greenmantle does this when Peter Pienaar decides to drink himself stupid in front of German soldiers. Being a gentleman, Hannay can't exactly repeat what kind of aspersions his friend threw towards the German army's character and their mothers'.
  • Nice Guy: Richard Hannay is a rare protagonist example.
  • Nobody Here but Us Birds: In Mr Standfast, there's a scene where Hannay is exploring one of the spy ring's hidden meeting places while a colleague keeps watch and hoots like an owl to warn him when somebody approaches.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed:
    • Karolides stands in for Franz Ferdinand as the international figure whose assassination makes war inevitable.
    • In The Courts of the Morning, Sandy Arbuthnot's physical appearance is very similar to that of T. E. Lawrence (which it had not been in earlier novels like Greenmantle). Lawrence was a friend of Buchan's, although they only met after the First World War.
  • 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.
  • Not My Driver: In Mr Standfast, this is pulled on the villain by the heroes near the end, with von Schwabing's chauffeur being replaced by a British intelligence agent.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: The subtrope that involves pretending not to understand a language. In Greenmantle, Hannay, Pienaar and Blenkiron trawl for information about the German plot by traveling through Germany in assumed identities that don't understand German and keeping their ears open.
  • Officer and a Gentleman: Several of the main characters — Richard Hannay, Sandy Arbuthnot, Archie Roylance — serve as officers in the British Army during World War I.
  • Once per Episode:
    • Each of the three wartime novels has a sequence where 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. The Three Hostages has a bit where he thinks he's going to have another relapse but it turns out to just be nervous stress, but it gives him the idea to pretend he's had a relapse and sneak around uncovering part of the villain's plan while the villain thinks he's safely tucked up in bed.
    • Each of the novels featuring Sandy Arbuthnot has him going off on his own to find out what he can about the villains, disappearing without leaving any message, and then an apparent antagonist turning out to be Sandy in a disguise he's adopted to infiltrate the villain's organisation. Even The Courts of the Morning, where Sandy is the main character instead of Hannay, does it, though it gets the whole business out of the way within the first ten chapters. In the last book of the series, Hannay actually anticipates the revelation and arranges a private meeting with the villain he suspects of being Sandy in disguise to give him a chance to reveal himself.
  • 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!
  • Person with the Clothing: Greenmantle revolves around the foretelling of a great Islamic prophet's arrival, to be identified by said green mantle. When Sandy is picked as the puppet prophet to replace the intended candidate who untimely died, he does a runner wearing the full regalia in order to grind the villains' plans to a halt.
  • Pinned to the Wall: When Scudder is killed near the beginning of The Thirty-Nine Steps, 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.
  • Post-Climax Confrontation: At the climax of The Three Hostages, the heroes rescue the hostages and the gang is rounded up, but their leader escapes justice. In the final chapter, he shows up while Hannay is on holiday and tries to get his revenge.
  • The Promise: Early in The Island of Sheep, Hannay recounts how, back in his African days, he and a friend helped the explorer Haraldsen fight off treasure-hunters, and promised to help him and his family if they came back for another round. The rest of the plot of the novel is them living up to the promise.
  • Properly Paranoid: Even the Reasonable Authority Figures find it difficult to believe Hannay's wild story in The Thirty-Nine Steps.
  • Prophecy Twist: Greenmantle revolves around a foretelling that a great Islamic prophet will reveal himself to the people at a time when they are in great need. The villains are trying to set up a puppet prophet to gain influence over the Islamic world. Sandy, who has infiltrated the villains' operation undercover, gets picked to be the false prophet after the original candidate dies suddenly, and subsequently does a runner wearing the full prophetic regalia to forestall the fake revelation. Later, after the villains are defeated and the Allied forces have, with the heroes' help, won the Battle of Erzurum, the heroes go to join the army heading into the city, with Sandy in particular so keen to be back in the fighting that he doesn't bother to change out of the regalia, which he's still wearing. Observing the reaction of the defeated Turks as Sandy rides past in the van of the conquering Allied army, Hannay observes that the prophecy has technically been fulfilled. "Greenmantle had appeared at last to an awaiting people."
  • 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.
  • Redemption Equals Death: In The Courts of the Morning, the heroes go to a lot of effort to help the Diabolical Mastermind to a Heel–Face Turn, figuring that he's not positively evil, just twisted by a cynical and friendless privileged upbringing, and is capable of being as great a force for good as he is for evil. It works, and as the book reaches its close, he's looking forward to a new future and the good he can do for the world and his new friends — and then in the last chapter he's murdered by a vengeful former henchman who escaped the round-up of his old criminal organization.
  • Refuge in Audacity: The Black Stone spy-ring in The Thirty-Nine Steps 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.
  • Refusal of the Call: In The Three Hostages, Hannay refuses two separate requests to help out with the hostage situation, partly because he doesn't want to leave his comfortable retirement and partly because he genuinely doesn't see anything he can do that isn't already being done. He gives in after the third request, from the father of the boy hostage, leads him to think about how he'd feel if it were his own son and realise that he won't be able to live with himself if he doesn't try.
  • Refusal of the Second Call: In The Courts of the Morning, Hannay once again declines a request to come out of retirement, and this time for once it sticks, leaving the heroics to his younger friend Archie Roylance.
  • Retired Badass: Richard Hannay is called out of his comfortable semi-retirement for the events of The Three Hostages and The Island of Sheep.
  • 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: Karolides (whose real world equivalent is Franz Ferdinand) and real life figures Kaiser Wilhelm and Ismail Enver all make appearances.
  • Rope Bridge: The Courts of the Morning includes a chase through the South American jungle that ends when the heroes get across a rope bridge and cut it behind them, sending their pursuers plummeting.
  • Shout-Out:
    • The literary innkeeper in The Thirty-Nine Steps describes Hannay's story as "pure Rider Haggard and Conan Doyle".
    • Mr Standfast can be seen as one big shout-out to The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan — Hannay uses a copy of that book to decipher coded messages throughout the story, and the title refers to a character from it.
  • 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: Launcelot 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.
  • Spell My Name with a Blank:
    • In The Three Hostages, Macgillivray emphasizes the outward respectability of the criminal ringleaders they're after by mentioning that one recently dined as a guest of — —, MP.
    • Later in the same story, Hannay reads an 18th-century book that includes references to "Lord A—", "the Duke of B—", and "Signorina F—".
    • The Island of Sheep has a similar bit about the outward respectability of the criminals in that one.
  • Spy Fiction: Basically invented the trope; the Beer and Martini elements both have roots here.
  • The Spymaster:
    • Sir Walter Bullivant in The Thirty-Nine Steps, Greenmantle, and Mr Standfast.
    • In Mr Standfast, John Blenkiron takes over direct charge of the particular operation Hannay and Mary Lamington are involved in, and proves to be a devious chessmaster.
    • In Mr Standfast, Graf von Schwabing for the Germans.
    • John Blenkiron again in The Courts of the Morning.
  • Stating the Simple Solution: In an unusual variation, in The Courts of the Morning it's the Diabolical Mastermind who points out the simple solution to the heroes. The heroes capture the Diabolical Mastermind about a third of the way in, as the first step of a complicated scheme that takes the rest of the novel to play out. When he starts to get an idea of what they're planning, he points out that it would be simpler and safer for them just to shoot him now. They reply that getting him out of the way isn't the only thing they're trying to achieve, and because they're the heroes their complicated scheme does end up achieving nearly everything they wanted.
  • 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 and friends.
  • 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.
  • To the Pain: During the climactic confrontation with the villain in The Three Hostages, Mary describes what she's going to do to him if he doesn't release the final hostage, a young child, in detail and with such terrifying conviction that he folds completely.
  • Trust Password:
    • In The Thirty-Nine Steps, 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".
    • In Mr Standfast, the German spy ring uses the closing lines of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's "Wanderer's Nightsong" ("The little birds in the forest are silent." / "Wait, soon you will rest too.") as their sign and countersign. The first time Hannay hears it, he narrates that it is
      Clearly some kind of password, for sane men don't talk about little birds in that kind of situation.
    • Played with in The Three Hostages. When Sandy needs to communicate with Hannay secretly, he says that he'll sign his messages with a letter of the Greek alphabet, then changes his mind, saying that he doesn't expect Hannay to know those, so he'll use champion racehorses instead. And so Hannay receives a series of messages signed with names of racehorses — none of which, he notes, are champions, because Sandy's knowledge of horse racing is even worse than Hannay's knowledge of Greek.
  • Twice Shy: In The Courts of the Morning, Barbara admits to a friend that she loves Sandy but believes she doesn't have a chance with him, and Sandy admits to another friend that he loves Barbara but believes he doesn't have a chance with her. The novel ends just as the latter friend nudges the two of them together. In the sequel, they're married.
  • Two Aliases, One Character: In The Three Hostages, Hannay has several encounters with mysterious "sad, grey-faced" man who forms part of Dominick Medina's entourage, but doesn't learn his name until near the end, at which point he turns out to be a person who has been mentioned several times in another context.
  • Underground Railroad: Inverted in Mr Standfast - the Untergrundbahn is a German operation to kidnap and imprison people who might be a danger to the German war effort.
  • Unstoppable Rage: Hannay can be pushed into this with severe bullying, as Stumm finds out in Greenmantle.
  • Villainous Crush: In Mr Standfast, the evil mastermind is revealed to have fallen in love with the same woman Hannay has, which adds to the feeling that this time It's Personal and contributes to the villain's downfall.
  • Villain on Leave: In The Thirty-Nine Steps, Hannay defeats a German spy ring at the outset of World War I. The first sequel, Greenmantle, has a new and unrelated group of villains, but then the second sequel, Mr Standfast, sees the Dragon from the first novel return as the Big Bad, leading a new spy ring in the closing months of the War, and getting his final come-uppance.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: In The Three Hostages, Dominick Medina is a well-known and respected public figure, explorer, politician, philanthropist and poet. He's also the Diabolical Mastermind at the head of an international crime syndicate. Even Hannay doesn't believe it until Medina personally tries to put him out of the way. At the end, though the heroes rescue the hostages and break the crime syndicate, they can't touch Medina personally, and he would have got away clean if he hadn't gone after Hannay in a Post-Climax Confrontation.
  • Wacky Americans Have Wacky Names: Hannay's American ally John S. Blenkiron. (The S is revealed in his final appearance to stand for "Scantlebury".)
  • 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.
  • Worthless Treasure Twist: In The Island of Sheep, the MacGuffin is an engraved tablet left by a dead explorer who was seeking a fabled treasure; one side bears a message with the date of his death and a statement that he had "happily found his treasure", while the other is a long passage in an obscure Asian script presumed to describe the location of this treasure. At the end of the novel, after the treasure hunters have been defeated, Sandy reveals that he's found somebody to translate the second side of the tablet, and it's a Muslim spiritual text.
  • Would Hurt a Child: In The Three Hostages, one of the hostages is a small boy, who will be murdered along with the others if he is not rescued in time.
  • Would Not Shoot a Civilian: Taken to extremes by Richard Hannay. At one point in Mr Standfast, Hannay has an opportunity to shoot the Big Bad — but, because he's in a crowded location and has his back to him, he declines.
  • 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.
  • Year X: The opening sentence of The Courts of the Morning gives the date as "the August of 192-".

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, The Courts Of The Morning


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