The Thirty-Nine Steps
John Buchan

Reprint edition (July 17, 2011)
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Classic Reads

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

The Novel That Popularized the Man on the Run and Modern Spy Thrillers
Review by Clay Stafford

A terrorist group wishes to start a war between Germany and England (prior to World War I) and it is up to main character Richard Hannay, an ordinary man on the run from both the terrorist group and the police, to prevent that war from happening. Unfortunately, as we know by history, the effort failed, but the story is an incredible ticking-clock adventure of a man avoiding capture as he dons one disguise after another in an attempt to stay alive without resources in a Scottish and English setting where everyone he meets is suspect.

Author John Buchan (1875-1940) was a government official for Great Britain who wrote because he loved to write, writing an average of three books per year during the full course of his life. What is fascinating about Buchan is that he used his writing to help himself understand the world and his own views better as related to topics that were of interest to him. He then shared that interest with others through publication. Over the course of his life, he wrote and edited by my count over 106 books (fiction, nonfiction, short stories, biographies, and poetry).

Considered by the BBC as one of the United Kingdom’s “best-loved novels,” The Thirty-Nine Steps is set historically in Buchan’s current time period, a ripped-from-the-headline then-current novel, but its sense of adventure and pursuit are timeless. It is as delightful now as when it was written in 1915. The novel solidified the man-on-the-run thriller and created a derivative industry by other trendish thriller and suspense writers, even to today. What’s significant to our canon is that, from The Thirty-Nine Steps, Buchan is considered by many to be arguably the father of the modern spy thriller and the lone-man-on-the-run suspense novel. While not always believable, The Thirty-Nine Steps kept me alert and I read through the short novel in no time. (I’ve read The Thirty-Nine Steps three times over the course of many years.) I am always especially attracted to its brevity and concise storytelling and its honest portrayal of characters, including all their biased and prejudiced flaws. Buchan played fairly and the effect is timeless as its continued popularity proves.

Clay Stafford is a bestselling writer, filmmaker, publisher, and founder of Killer Nashville. He’s spent the majority of his life in the Film/TV/Lit industries. He’s the CEO of American Blackguard, the Writer-In-Residence at BGA, and a longtime promoter of writers & artists. Connect with him at www.ClayStafford.com.