Monday, January 10, 2022

the last book I read

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan.

Richard Hannay is the right sort of chap; our sort of chap. Resourceful, tough, cool head in a crisis, owns a compass and a penknife, master of disguise, can handle himself when it all gets a bit tasty. A bit like that Jackal chap, although the whole assassination thing is a bit unsporting and he'd have no truck with getting distracted by huge-titted Euro-countesses. That sort of beastliness distracts and weakens a man and probably leads to communism and the like. No, a cold bath and a brisk walk with a stout stick soon takes care of those sort of urges, and a good thing too.

Hannay was born in Scotland but has spent most of his life in southern Africa where he has built a respectable fortune in the mining business. Back in the UK for the first time since he was a child, he is knocking around London feeling a bit stifled and starved of excitement when some lands conveniently on his doorstep: a man named Scudder approaches him in the corridor of the building where he has rented an apartment and tells him a remarkable story of international espionage and conspiracy and moreover how he, Scudder, is the only person who knows about it and needs somewhere to lay low now that he has faked his own death.

Intrigued, Hannay invites him in, and hears the rest of the details of the plot, which are sketchy but involve the imminent UK visit of the Greek premier, Karolides, and an attempt to be made on his life, with the wider objective of destabilising European relations in some way and accelerating the already imminent approach of war. Hannay has some errands to run but allows Scudder to lie low in his apartment - when he gets back he finds Scudder lying rather lower than he expected, having been skewered to the floor through the heart with a large knife. 

Needless to say this is rather awkward for Hannay and, having been through Scudder's pockets and retrieved an interesting-looking notebook with some coded messages in it, he slips out of the apartment and hops on a train to Scotland, hoping to go to ground in the hills of Galloway. But his pursuers are on the trail - those pursuers comprising the usual police but also a small group of dastardly types who may or may not be German, but give every appearance of being British. Since this second group were responsible for the murder of Scudder and plan to be responsible for the assassination of Karolides those are the guys that Hannay is principally concerned about, although of course being collared by the rozzers would be an inconvenience in terms of foiling the plot.

There follows a rollicking chase through the Scottish lowlands and a series of frankly absurd coincidences, most prominently Hannay running into someone he knows on a road on a wild and remote area of moorland, and later on Hannay blundering into a country house that just happens to be occupied by the principal set of villains, who instead of just shooting him in the face and lobbing him in a loch decide to lock him in a barn which just happens to contain a substantial quantity of explosives. Hannay's mining experience then enables him to blow up a wall and escape. One of the other people Hannay runs into (literally in this case as they are involved in a car crash) also just happens to be related to some high-ranking Foreign Office johnny and promises to write a letter introducing Hannay and describing the plot.

Hannay eventually makes his way back to southern England and seeks out his Foreign Office contact in his lavishly-appointed country house. Naturally, rather than dismissing Hannay as some kind of frothing loony he instantly recognises the kind of upstanding chap he is and they hot-foot it off to London. Hannay has been working on decrypting Scudder's notebook and has extracted the phrase "the thirty-nine steps" and some stuff indicating tide times. But where? Luckily the assembled company includes someone who knows about these things and they narrow the search down to a handful of beaches in Kent. The one they eventually identify does indeed have a staircase running down to the beach (with thirty-nine steps), a boat waiting mysteriously offshore and a handy cottage at the top of the cliffs where Hannay confronts the three occupants. But are they the villains in convincing disguise as holidaying English gents, or actual holidaying English gents? Have they got the right men? Have they got the right beach? As time ticks down a tense stand-off ensues until eventually one of the villains Gives Himself Away, Hannay raises the alarm and the rozzers steam in and arrest everyone.

I mentioned The Thirty-Nine Steps as a likely precursor to Rogue Male almost exactly a year ago, with the caveat that I hadn't at that point read it. Now that I have read it I'm still pretty comfortable with the comparison, although I think Rogue Male is a better book. You can see the debt subsequent spy/espionage/escape thrillers owe to this one, though, and their central characters, James Bond being an obvious example. In fact The Thirty-Nine Steps reads in parts like a sketched-out template for writing a spy thriller rather than a spy thriller itself, absurdly exciting in many places but lacking in any sort of clear indication of what the central plot actually involves (and as a consequence a lack of clarity around what benefit foiling it brings, since Karolides gets offed and World War I breaks out shortly afterwards anyway), and turning on a number of utterly implausible coincidences that kill some of the built-up tension. It's also extremely short at only 119 pages - that's not necessarily a criticism, just a reflection that there's not much room for detail or nuance among all the hooning about on the moors. It's interesting that all of the major film adaptations introduced some contrivance to provide a pretext for Hannay to wander into the villains' lair halfway through, rather than just have it happen by accident, and changed the ending from the rather downbeat one of four blokes playing a game of bridge in a clifftop cottage to something rather more kinetic.

It almost goes without saying that there are a swathe of warnings to be issued here around the inevitable racism, anti-Semitism, general Baden-Powell-esque disdain for squishy city types who don't know how to gut a squirrel - there isn't much sexism but only because there are barely any female characters in the whole book. How much of an outlier Buchan was in that respect in the heady days of 1915 it's hard to say. But anyway, it's a rollicking good read and won't occupy you for more than a couple of days, so why not. 

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