Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Books of 1915: The 39 Steps by John Buchan

John Buchan's The 39 Steps was an early spy thriller. Some articles credit Buchan as being the father of the modern spy thriller; others say this about Eric Ambler. This is a hard book to review. As Col at Col's Criminal Library said in his review, there is not much I can add that hasn't been covered in all the other reviews and articles online. This is my contribution to the Past Offences Crime Fiction of the Year Challenge for 1915.

What did I think of The 39 Steps? I enjoyed reading the book, but I did wonder why it has been on so many lists of best crime fiction stories.  It is a short book, like many written at that time, and I read it very quickly. I did have problems with bigotry and casual racial slurs in the telling of the story but that is not unusual in books of that time. I was reading this book more as an educational experience (a classic written during a time period that I am interested in), rather than expecting to really like it, but it turned out to be an entertaining read all the same.

The action in this book takes place before Britain enters World War I. Richard Hannay is living a quiet life in London, and is very, very bored. He has left behind a more exciting life in South Africa. A mysterious man named Scudder enters his flat and requests that he be able to stay with Hannay for a few days, telling him about a plot to assassinate a foreign official who will be visiting soon. The man ends up dead, and Hannay is determined to follow through and get the information he has gleaned from this stranger to the right authorities. He is motivated somewhat by fear that he will be blamed for Scudder's death but he seems brave, although not sure of his abilities to avoid being captured by the enemy. He also has been taught well about how to blend in and appear to be what he is not.
Peter once discussed with me the question of disguises, and he had a theory which struck me at the time. He said, barring absolute certainties like fingerprints, mere physical traits were very little use for identification if the fugitive really knew his business. He laughed at things like dyed hair and false beards ...
If a man could get into perfectly different surroundings from those in which he had been first observed, and - this is the important part - really play up to these surroundings and behave as if he had never been out of them, he would puzzle the cleverest detectives on earth.
I found it problematic that things go too well for him and he never seems to be in real danger. Yet I was still entertained. His self-doubt and deprecation were appealing compared to the heroes of some current action thrillers.

Although I read a lot of vintage crime fiction, I do have a bias against reading really old books (late 19th century or early 20th century) because of stereotypes and the lack of good female characters in general. Yet having decided to read the book, I tried to not to judge it by the standards of today's writing. I was bothered (and surprised) that only men really figured in this story. Women characters featured only briefly and just as helpers to get him on his  way. This is a major difference from the 1935 Hitchcock adaptation, but the book was probably more realistic.

There are many resources online regarding John Buchan's books and his life. Here are some I found of interest:
I acquired my paperback copy at the Planned Parenthood book sale last September. With its small and faded type, it was hard to read but I love the cover. See this post at Killer Covers which includes information about this cover and the cover artist.

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Publisher:  Popular Library, 1963. Orig. pub. 1915.
Length:     142 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Richard Hannay, #1
Setting:     UK, Scotland
Genre:      Adventure, spy thriller
Source:     Purchased my copy.


22 comments:

  1. You're clearly more open-minded than me Tracey - but also more of a fan of spy fiction in general than I am - I'm too cynical or something, can never seem to suspend my disbelief in the way I do for other genres.

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    1. You are right, Bernadette, I am much more of a fan of spy fiction. One of favorite genres, although I will admit spy fiction can be very variable.

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  2. I've always been bugged by sexism and racism in early books, but I've always been able to brush it aside and blame the times. What I've come to realize about myself, especially after the way I reacted to Murder is Easy by Agatha Christie and That Which Is Crooked by Doris Miles Disney, is homophobia is what kills me. I think it's because what I personally have to deal with in my own life, so it's harder to forgive for me. And while racism and sexism bug me, since it doesn't affect me personally, I'm able to brush it aside easier.

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    1. That is a very interesting insight, Ryan. Having to deal with prejudices in one's personal life does make one more sensitive. I get really bugged by sexism, more than other "isms". I see all of those nowadays too, though, people are just not so open with it.

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  3. Glad you were entertained Tracy and thanks for linking to my posts on it. I probably enjoyed it the same as you, but haven't rushed to read his next Hannay adventure.

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    1. I would like to try Greenmantle, Col, but don't know how much more I would read of his books.

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  4. Tracy, I think you reviewed this "hard book" very well and I'm even more curious to read it now. Like you, I have read several reviews of this classic tale.

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    1. Thank you, Prashant. I was glad I finally read this book. And now I get to watch the Hitchcock movie again. I have never seen any other adaptations.

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  5. Tracy - Very nice and objective review. I get really bothered by the 'isms' of older crime fiction too. It's hard to put those feelings aside when you're looking at the quality of an older story. But I'm glad you found things to like here.

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    1. Margot, I try to read "around" the isms and I don't know if that is good or bad. Regardless, the book did have its good points.

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  6. I read this book as a teenager and absolutely loved it - I probably wasn't too bothered about aspects that would certainly trouble me now. It would be interesting to read it again, from that point of view, but perhaps life is too short...

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    1. I am sure you would see it differently now, Moira, whether for better or worse. But I am not sure it is worth a reread.

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  7. I am intrigued by your postings and your style -- and I stumbled onto your site via Patti's -- so I am going to include your site among my "favorites" at Beyond Eastrod. Now, though, I have to grab my copy of Buchan's novel and revisit it. See what you've started!

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    1. Thanks for the kind words, R.T. I do hope you enjoy re-reading The 39 Steps.

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  8. I enjoyed your analysis. I never think to look for stereotypes, slurs, bigotry or the role of women. I have much to learn about crime fiction! Just finished my 2nd book...crime is becoming addictive!

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    1. Thanks, Nancy. I am glad you are enjoying the crime fiction you are reading. Like any type of fiction, it is variable and different readers have different tastes, but there is a lot of good writing in crime fiction.

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  9. I have the opposite bias. I can't read anything written in the past half century - too much cynicism, too much nihilism, too much political correctness. And in modern crime fiction, too much misery and horror.

    In older books I tend to see the positive aspects - the beliefs in honour, and duty, and courage, and a certain basic decency.

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    1. That is very interesting, dfordoom. I certainly don't go for misery and horror, but somehow we become anesthetized to it. I will have to pay more attention to how much I read from various time periods. Doesn't seem like I read a lot of new stuff, but I do like 60's, 70's and 80's books.

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    2. We do become anaesthetised to misery and horror but in my case the anaesthetic has worn off!

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    3. I remembered another thing I prefer about the older mysteries... the fact that technology is so prevalent in recent fiction really turns me off. I work in information technology but I don't want to read about it in crime fiction so much. I do like some science fiction, but most of that is more hopeful.

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  10. You bring up some of the things that bother me about 100 year old books as well-- and in my case I just couldn't finish my 1915 book pick.

    Spy fiction is a big blind spot in my reading, and while I'd like to read some, I'm not sure when I will get to it!

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    1. Rebecca, it will be interesting to check out other books chosen and what people thought about them, because some of them would never appeal to me. I am sure that there are exceptions.

      Spy fiction is variable. There are a lot of mystery readers who don't like that sub-genre at all.

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