The 39 Steps

The 39 Steps by John Buchan

I have very hazy memories of The 39 Steps being a black and white film starring Kenneth More and involving him pursued through Scotland while handcuffed to a glamorous lady. What is very odd is that the film bears little resemblance to the novel and is in fact a remake of the Alfred Hitchcock's 39 Steps involving dangerous women,a professor and a memory man, none of which feature in the novel by John Buchan. By the time the Robert Powell film was on general release, things had gotten frankly ridiculous and at no point does Richard Hannay hang off the clock face of Big Ben. Something was afoot here! Why is the novel so different to the films? Honestly, I have no idea! The novel is, and remains a classic spy fiction, short and perfectly formed.

Richard Hannay arrives home at his London flat, bored with life and encounters his neighbour, Franklin Scudder who is waiting for him with the most extraordinary tale of a potential assassination plot of a key figure in the Balkan crisis. Scudder explains he is in grave danger and has faked his own death to ensure this information gets into the correct hands. 2 days later Scudder is killed at Hannay's flat, with a knife plunged through his heart. Scudder has hidden his notebook for Hannay to find which contains a mysterious code pertaining to the 39 Steps.

Hannay flees to Scotland and the majority of the book involves Hannay fleeing from the police and Scudder's enemies who want to bump off Hannay and retrieve the incriminating notebook. Hannay's adventures plunge him into some extraordinary situations; he becomes a road sweeper for a day, speaks at a hustings meeting for a potential Parliamentary candidate and spends a lot of his time roaming the beautiful scenery of Scotland. You know me, I am a sucker for a good bit of scenery.

Finally Hannay is discovered by one of Scudder's bosses, Sir Walter, a Cabinet Member high up in the war office. Sir Walter confirms Hannay's innocence and enlists him in bringing the enemies to justice and to discover who or what the 39 steps are.

I really enjoyed this. It had a quintessential feel to it with the language and description of the times, but almost with a 'Boys Own' sense of knockabout adventure. Hannay is an engaging character and the book is well paced. A lovely afternoon read that you will get through as the dusk slowly settles.

To sit alongside this, I definitely think a cup of Earl Grey and a Cheese Scone. Why a cheese scone? Well, during his adventures around Scotland, a family take pity on Hannay and he is fed with a cheese scone, boiled egg and a cut of ham. Perfect!