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Gurglings of a Putrid Stream

Thoughts on books and other assorted topics.

See also:  http://goppf.wikidot.com/swstart

My name:  Brian Martin

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps has survived as a classic of the thriller genre for almost a hundred years now, a fact that I think says less about either Buchan or the book itself than it does about Alfred Hitchcock, whose 1935 adaptation is better in every way.

The book is a breezily written story about a fairly ordinary man, Richard Hannay, whose neighbor reveals to him the existence of a conspiracy to start a war (World War I, as it happens). The neighbor is murdered, leaving behind his cryptic notebook and, of course, the murderers, who naturally believe that Hannay knows too much and must be silenced. Wanted also by the police, who suspect him in the neighbor's murder, Hannay is forced to run for his life. Along the way, he must figure out how to get his information to the proper authorities, information that will be useless unless he can also decipher the meaning of "the thirty-nine steps," a phrase repeated several times in the notebook.

What follows is an episodic cat-and-mouse game that isn't quite fair since Hannay gets one lucky break after another. It's a book that is probably best read one chapter at a time in an approximation of how it first appeared, as a serial in Blackwood's Magazine. To read it straight through is to be distracted from the enjoyment of each adventure by the accumulated weight of its implausibility. On the other hand, Buchan doesn't take any of it too seriously, so if you don't either, you likely will be entertained.

It's light stuff: amusing at times, exciting at others, and Hannay himself is a pleasant everyman, more given to action than self-reflection. In most chapters he meets a Scottish local -- the "literary innkeeper," the "spectacled roadman," the "bald archaeologist" -- who either wants to help him or kill him. The "radical candidate" wants him to make a speech!

What it isn't, is a mystery. I was fooled somewhat by the fact that it is titled after a mysterious phrase. I thought Hannay was going to encounter a series of clues gradually revealing its meaning. The truth is, "the thirty-nine steps" is only a part of the phrase; the whole thing, which Hannay has before long, is much less baffling.

Unfortunately, it all builds toward a rather disappointing climax. For one thing, Hannay's role at the end of the book seems hardly plausible. For another, it hinges on an observation about disguise that may be difficult to swallow. And finally -- strangely -- it is quite sedate. I won't say that it makes you wish for the equivalent of another third act car chase, but it does make you wish for something to happen. But very little does.

In all, it's a nice little book. But it's a wonderful movie.