Although I dipped into the espionage/thriller genre very briefly last year, it seems only fitting that I've kicked off my 'season of spy' novels with John Buchan's classic The Thirty-Nine Steps. Published in 1915 this thriller is one of the grandaddies of the genre and while Buchan's novel is perhaps not as sophisticated as more modern spy stories, it lacks nothing in good, edge of your seat storytelling. I suspect he helped pave the way for the likes of Ian Fleming and John Le Carre to name just a couple of authors who've helped shape the genre. It was the perfect novel to curl up with on a cold winter's night, and in this case it helped me ring in the new year.
It's easy to see glimmers of Buchan's personality in his creation, Richard Hannay. Unable to serve in the war due to age restrictions and health issues Buchan was bored and frustrated. He decided to improve on the popular "shockers" of the day as well as help take people's minds off the horrors of modern war. Buchan had already been a journalist and published author, but with The Thirty-Nine Steps came success and notoriety. As a war historian Buchan already had knowledge and insight into government workings. He would eventually become Britain's Director of Intelligence, but at the time he was writing he was simply well educated and well read particularly concerning current world events. Scottish by birth and educated at Oxford he was a civil servant in South Africa for a time and would go on to be elected a Member of Parliament and later was appointed governor general of Canada.
Richard Hannay was Buchan's most famous character. An expatriate-Scot living in South Africa where he works as a mining engineer, Hannay has returned to the "Old Country" but finds himself bored to tears.
"The weather made me liverish, the talk of the ordinary Englishman made me sick, I couldn't get enough exercise, and the amusement of London seemed as flat as soda water that had been standing in the sun. 'Richard Hannay', I kept telling myself, 'you have got into the wrong ditch, my friend, and you had better climb out'."
Hannay is an ordinary man who becomes entangled in extraordinary circumstances but will be well served by his past experiences. One afternoon he's approached by a nervous little chap who he recognizes from one of the flats in his building. Franklin P. Scudder is a master of disguises and happens also to be an American spy. Charged with passing on information about the plans for an assassination of a foreign official soon to be visiting London, Scudder fears his days are numbered and decides to take Hannay into his confidence. Scudder feeds him a story verging on the outrageous and Hannay finds himself drifting off during the telling, but when he returns home to find a body pinned to the floor with a knife he realizes his boredom has turned into something else altogether. However, Richard Hannay, who you're sure is a consummate adventurer, takes it all in stride.
What follows is surely one of the best chase scenes in literature. Hannay is on the run in a hostile landscape followed not only by unknown pursuers after a little black notebook Scudder kept, but by the British police who believe he's a murderer. With no one to turn to he heads north to the Scottish moors. The assassination attempt is due to occur in less than three weeks, so Hannay must lie low. It's a tricky affair as the foreign official can't be warned away as that will set in motion events equally as devastating as an assassination. Scudder's little black notebook proves to be filled with a number of revelations, most importantly that Scudder wasn't entirely honest with Hannay. So Richard Hannay finds himself in possession of information which might well lead to war.
Hannay is a likable fellow with luck on his side. He's always only one short step away from being captured, but common sense and and a quick wit keep him mostly out of harm's way. He understands the importance of blending in with his environment and believing himself to be a part of it. And with a little help along the way, no matter how breathless the chase you fully expect Richard Hannay to triumph. It's easy to see why The Thirty-Nine Steps has achieved classic status. It was a bestseller at the time it was published and has not been out of print since. I thoroughly enjoyed this one.
John Buchan wrote four more Richard Hannay novels, and I have Greenmantle on my shelves. I'll definitely be exploring more of his work. Apparently Graham Greene and Eric Ambler both acknowledge Buchan as an influence on their work, and I've added them both to my list (which I'll be sharing this week sometime). I'm hoping to read a little outside the norm when it comes to spy fiction as well as classics of the genre, and I hope very much to see more women (alas no love interest in the novel, though I understand the movies are quite different than the book) take the lead, as why should the boys have all the fun?