Scotsman John Buchan’s fabulous The 39 Steps is rightly considered a seminal classic in the Adventure/Spy genre and it is for good reason it was on The Guardian’s Best 100 English Novels list at #42.
This exciting tale of espionage defined the man-on-the-run tale in breathless fashion, and was the first of the author’s Richard Hannay tales. What remains remarkable is the contemporary prose. Though it takes place before the first World War, offering insight into the view of what was happening at that time, the tale is timeless, and with minor changes, could easily be a thrilling espionage adventure told in our day. Books need to be judged within their context, and while most do, some don't. At least on Amazon, it has a solid four-star average after hundreds of reviews, which I feel more accurately reflects how much fun this is to read.
That's not to say some of what happens isn't implausible, almost Cornell Woolrich implausible, but with a style and pace which makes Robert Ludlum seem lethargic — no easy task — the reader is having so much fun they simply don’t care. Reading The 39 Steps is fun and exciting, which is what it is supposed to be. Watching Hannay escape time after time until the thrilling confrontation and conclusion is exhilarating.
Buchan writes as though using lighting bolts rather than a pen, and we’re just along for the electric-charged ride. The 39 Steps is the quintessential can’t-put-down read. That thrill you got as a youngster reading a mystery adventure by flashlight beneath the covers was captured by Buchan and moved forward into adulthood, and on that level it doesn't just succeed, it shines. It's on The Guardian's list for good reason.
The book differs from Hitchcock’s famous British film adaptation in that there is no love interest for Hannay here; frankly because it isn’t needed. A rollicking good old-fashioned tale that set a bar seldom reached since. Fabulous fun and quite enjoyable when read, if you don't try to compare it with modern-day spy novels.