Friday, June 28, 2013

Forgotten Books: The 39 Steps

The 39 Steps by John Buchan, Classic Spy Thriller

Written and published in 1915 and set in 1914, The 39 Steps is considered to be the first modern spy thriller. It provided inspiration for authors like Ian Fleming, whose James Bond is also a gentleman spy, equally comfortable in elite drawing rooms and roughing it in the wild. The book is written in a fast-paced style with a breezy tone and slang words from the time period, and seems much less stuffy than the older Victorian style of writing.

The hero/protanonist is Richard Hannay, a mining engineer in his mid-30's, who returns to England after having "made in pile" in Southern Africa. But after his adventures there, he finds life in London comfortable but boring. All that changes when a neighbor, Matthew Scudder, a rather odd American, pushes his way into Hannay's flat, claiming he's a freelance spy and his life is in danger. He asks Hannay to help him, and gives him a notebook full of coded information. Hannay is understandably skeptical, but before he knows it, Scudder is dead in his flat and Hannay is on the run from the police.

Hannay escapes into Scotland where he has a series of adventures while being chased by both the police and the German spy ring. Even after nearly 100 years, this is still a fun, fast read and a ripping good spy yarn, though I forgot to mention it has some politically incorrect references, mainly anti-Semitic and ethnic slurs, like referring to the Greek prime minister as a dago! I'm pretty sure it was the first to feature aerial surveillance which inspired movie makers like Hitchcock to film a man being chased by plane, a la North By Northwest, which I think borrows heavily from The 39 Steps.

The book was made into movies at least four times. All the movie versions make significant changes to the story, adding a love interest and other changes to plot and time period. I must have seen one of the old movies because I was under the impression that the book took place before World War II rather than World War I.

1935 black and white film directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll

1959 color film starring Kenneth More, closely based on Hitchcock version

1978 film starred Robert Powell, Karen Dotrice and John Mills Closer to the book since set pre-WWI.

2008 BBC television adaptation produced by BBC Scotland's drama unit stars Rupert Penry-Jones, and Lydia Leonard. The film ends with a scene involving a submarine in a Scottish loch, rather than the original setting off the Kent coast. This one is REALLY fun, with good sexual tension and banter between Hannay and a Scottish suffragette, and gorgeous Scottish locales. Plus Rupert Penry-Jones is seriously good looking.

I watched both the Hitchcock and BBC versions and enjoyed them both, even though neither one followed the book all that closely. Both added romantic subplots, but I was okay with that. :)



Barrie said...

I loved this book. I really should re-read it!

Linda McLaughlin said...

It is a fun book, and a fast read. Perfect for summer.