Saturday, June 15, 2013

The 39 Steps by John Buchan


I had a hard time choosing an adventure classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge.  I thought this was an easy pick --  originally I was planning on reading 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but I listened to an audio version and it moved so slowly that I finally gave up.  I was searching for something in my library branch the other day and ran across The 39 Steps by John Buchan, and I remembered how much I'd enjoyed the BBC movie adaptation from a few years ago.

This is the story of Richard Hannay, a youngish man, probably in his thirties.  Set in the spring of 1914, Richard has come to London after spending years in South Africa as a mining engineer.  He's made some money and wants to enjoy himself but he's rather lonely and getting bored with London society.  He craves excitement, and one day it literally bumps into him as a fellow tenant in his apartment, a man with whom he has a nodding acquaintance, accosts Richard as he's unlocking his flat and begs to come in and confide in him.  The neighbor, a Mr. Scudder, has an amazing story -- he's a spy and is in possession of some very top-secret information about international intrigue in the Balkans.  Also, he's just faked his own death to elude some very dangerous people who are trying to kill him.  Scudder convinces Richard to hide him for a few days until he can make contact with important people and prevent an international incident.

Well, this is all fascinating for Richard until he comes home one day to find Scudder dead in his apartment.  It all looks very bad, so he escapes with the clothes on his back, some cash and an encoded notebook that Scudder hid in a jar of tobacco.  (Coincidentally, Richard finds this as he is refilling his tobacco pouch.  Of course.).  He makes his way north to Scotland while eluding the police and the bad guys while trying to decode the notebook and make everything right and clear his own name.

The dishy Rupert Penry-Jones as Richard Hannay
As you'd expect, Richard gets into lots of scrapes and near-misses and has lots of brilliant escapes, kind of like an early James Bond, but without all the gadgets and sexy women.   This was a quick, light read, about 150 pages in the Penguin edition pictured above (I love the retro cover!)  I'm not really into spy or adventure stories but once in awhile I like a good thriller.  Overall, it was okay, but I did have some trouble with suspending disbelief -- it's pretty amazing in this book how often Richard manages to get out of situations one after another by amazing coincidences and his brilliant knowledge gleaned from working as a mining engineer.  Also, the book ends really abruptly.  It was published in 1915 not long after the beginning of WWI, and there's lots of foreshadowing about the war, with mentions of the Balkans and the Germans and such.

It was interesting to read a book published just at the start of the war.  Buchan wrote several sequels about Richard Hannay but I'm not sure this was interesting enough for me to go searching for them.  Has anyone else read this book?  What did you think?  What other adventure classics do you recommend?  And does anyone else think Rupert Penry-Jones would make a good James Bond?

14 comments:

  1. I think this is his best known book, mainly because it has been filmed so many times but I think his best book is Greenmantle, well worth reading.

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    1. Yes, there have been a LOT of adaptations. I don't know how faithful the last one was, there was a woman who was kind of sidekick that's not in the book AT ALL. I'll have to look for Greenmantle. Thanks!

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  2. There was a phenomenal, and extremely inventive theatrical adaptation on Broadway several seasons ago. It had a very small cast playing multiple characters, and the fast-paced action was conveyed with minimal scene changes, using lighting and props to move the story forward. It was really terrific.

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    1. I think it would have had to be inventive -- a lot of the book is him running around hiding on moors, which would be challenging on stage!

      However, I like the idea of the multiple characters by the small cast. One of the villains is described as being rather chameleon-like so that would work out well.

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  3. The Hitchcock movie is good fun, but not terrifically close to the book. It has women, for instance... ;-) [I agree about Greenmantle too!]

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    1. I know I've seen the Hitchcock version but it's been so long I can't remember it. I think the only women in the book were cooks or other servants! No love interest for Richard in the book at all!

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  4. I've had this on the TBR stacks for a while, because I'd seen references to it as a perfect escapist thriller. And then when I came across a copy of Greenmantle, I bought it too, even though I still haven't read the first one. Maybe this will inspire me!

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    1. It's a fun read, but action sequences tend to bore me. He does a lot of running around on moors. You could easily finish it in one sitting.

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  5. I put the book on my TBR list after I saw the movie adaptation whit Rupert Penry-Jones, but I haven't read it yet. I didn't think that the movie is not to close to the book. It would be very interesting to see Rupert Penry-Jones as James Bond.

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    1. It's not close to the movie AT ALL. He has a love interest and there are no women in the book except for kind farm women who give him food and servants, I think. No romance at all!

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  6. I've read the first three of the Hannay books (39 steps, Greenmantle & Mr Standfast) & I enjoyed them all. You do have to suspend disbelief though, I agree! Buchan was a Scot so I especially enjoy the scenes in Scotland because he obviously knows & loves it which comes through in the beautifully descriptive writing. Another great thriller from the same era (& reprinted in the same retro Penguin series as your copy of 39 steps) is The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers. However, I have to warn you that there's an awful lot of sailing in it! Published in 1903 it's called the first spy story & foreshadows the coming war in its suspicion of Germany's race to militarize. There's a great audio version read by Anton Lesser.

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    1. I do have Riddle of the Sands!! I got it the library sale for $1. I rather like reading about sailing and ships, though I am a complete landlubber myself. I'll look for the audio version.

      I may even tackle Moby-Dick this summer if I can work up the nerve. That has entire chapters about whale blubber, if I'm not mistaken.

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  7. Sounds like a fun read! I've heard of it forever, but it never crossed my mind to read it. Now I'm intrigued--a perfect airplane ride book!

    Yes, Rupert Penry-Jones would make a good James Bond, but I'm not done with Daniel Craig yet! :)

    I read Captains Courageous for my adventure classic and liked it fairly well. Not the best book I've ever read, but interesting. I had trouble figuring out what to read in this category as well. Most of the titles I came up with were kids books were RL Stevenson--Treasure Island, Kidnapped, The Black Arrow, etc.

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  8. I enjoyed the 39 Steps too, I really want to re-read it and I have the sequels on my reading list. I wonder if the adaptation with Rupert Penry-Jones drew on some of the sequels?

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