The 39 Steps by John Buchan
Do you know you’re a good book when Alfred Hitchcock makes a film version of you? Or perhaps when you spawn an entire genre? Or maybe it’s simply when you’re exciting, well-written, and smart? John Buchan’s The 39 Steps fits the bill on all fronts and is definitely a good book. Heck, a great book!
The 39 Steps is a proto-thriller that sets up all the “an ordinary citizen is suddenly drawn into an international conspiracy and must save the day” type movies and books we’ve seen since its publication in 1915. In this case, the ordinary citizen is Richard Hannay, who is just the sort of “keep calm and carry on” Briton you want on the job when there is a sinister plot to be foiled and world war to be prevented.
The book tells the story of Hannay’s adventures after one of neighbors turns out to be a spy who has uncovered a top secret plot to assassinate a Greek leader visiting London. Revealing only part of what he’s discovered to Hannay, the spy is soon found murdered in Hannay’s very apartment. Thus armed with not quite the full story but a sense of real danger, Hannay sets out using only his wits and suddenly-acquired aptitude for disguises and accents to save the Greek and himself from untimely deaths.
It is hard to describe what makes The 39 Steps such a good read, but I will say that this is the first thriller I’ve read where the term seemed accurate: The 39 Steps is undeniably thrilling. Hannay is a smart, quick-thinking, and talented protagonist who you are excited to tag along with and who you root for from the very beginning. The plot is exciting, the bad guys are just mysterious enough to be sinister, and the setting (primarily the Scottish Highlands) is described in perfect detail. There is not a foul note in it.
The only weird thing—which has been rectified by every film adaptation of the story since, including Hitchcock’s—is that there are literally no female characters. The book is so well done that I didn’t even notice the lack until well past the three quarters mark, but it still struck me as slightly strange. The story does not suffer for the lack of a female or two, in fact it does just fine without the fairer sex, but from a modern viewpoint, it just seemed weird to not have any women floating about. Buchan went on to write a number of other stories with Hannay at the helm, so presumably he’ll find female companionship at some point in those.