A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Thomas Baird

JOHN BUCHAN – The 39 Steps. William Blackwood & Sons, UK, hardcover, 1915. Serialized in in Blackwood’s Magazine, UK, July-December 1915, under the pseudonym “H de V.” Previously serialized in All-Story Weekly, US, June 5 & 12, 1915. George H. Doran Co., US, hardcover, 1916. Houghton Mifflin, US, hardcover, 1919. Pocket #69, US, paperback, 1940. Reprinted many times since, and still in print today.

   One of Alfred Hitchcock’s best films was The 39 Steps, which he took from John Buchan’s excellent adventure/spy novel. While Hitchcock’s 1935 film differs in many details and mechanisms from the book, both artists mined the same vein, and it’s easy to see what made Hitchcock want to work his transformations on this tale.

   The romantic figure of the hero, Richard Hannay, is the perfect early example of the soldier of fortune. He’s sound of wind and limb, he’s courageous and slightly bored, and he is catapulted by treachery into facing a vast conspiracy that can determine the fate of the world. The writing doesn’t contain too much character to clutter up the plot, and there are no female roles in this adventure. (Hitchcock injected character into the story, partly by including female players in the game.)

   Hannay sets out on the chase, first to hide out from the police, who want him for murder, and also from the German villains who want to stop the secret from getting out. By ruse and disguise, he traverses the well-described wilds of Scotland to stay undercover until the fatal hour. Falling in and out of the clutches of his facile fate, he enlists help as he runs, is chased by airplane, and is captured by his adversaries. This is where James Bond came from.

   The Scottish author John Buchan, Baron Tweedsmuir, was also a political official and governor-general of Canada. He wrote many books of history and biography, as well as other adventures, which he called “shockers.” The best of the other Hannay books is Greenmantle (1916). Another hero, Leithen, is featured in other stories, and Buchan is powerfully descriptive of southern Africa, Europe, and the Middle East.

   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.