The Thirty-Nine Steps, originally released in 1915, was a key influence on the development of the modern espionage thriller.
Months before the outbreak of World War I, British colonial Richard Hannay is at loose ends in a London where he feels ill at ease. Eager for adventure, he’s pulled into the machinations of his unassuming neighbor, who plunges Hannay into the struggle to foil a plot that will weaken Britain’s defenses and plunge Europe into conflict. Wrongly suspected of murder, Hannay goes on the run, dodging police and conspirators alike, attempting to stay free and alive long enough to put the information he’s discovered into the right hands. The ex-soldier discovers that no one is better positioned than him to prevent a potential national catastrophe in a tense climax.
Written by John Buchan, The Thirty-Nine Steps was an early entry in the familiar espionage thriller genre. Building on the adventure stories and mysteries of the previous generation, Buchan injected political/historical elements that pushed the plot into a different realm than its forebears. There certainly was action, as Hannay scrambled to escape London and stay one step ahead of his pursuers. And the titular mystery perplexed the hero for the length of the concise story.
Hannay proved to be an agreeable narrator, providing key details and observations. Buchan took a more leisurely approach to plotting, focusing more on character and atmosphere, to strong effect. The focus on psychological elements, mixed with now-familiar tropes like disguises, armed pursuits, an explosion, even car and airplane chases, kept the action moving just briskly enough without becoming overheated. The end result effectively mixed fiction with then-recent real world events that gave the proceedings more heft. The story retains its resonance more than a century later.
For a period piece, the novel doesn’t contain as many offputting elements as some of its contemporaries might. A couple of troubling racial/ethnic stereotypes popped up, but were also addressed in-story. Modern sensibilities shouldn’t have any significant issues with this period work.
Seeing the origins of a favorite genre can be an edifying experience. The Thirty-Nine Steps is worth reading both for its glimpse into the roots of spy fiction and as a compelling story in its own right.