Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Listened to: "The Thirty-Nine Steps" by John Buchan

Listened To: The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan, 1915 (2011 listed for this audio), download. Frederick Davidson narrated.

There have been several reviews of this from the Forgotten Books crowd. I have vague memories of seeing the black and white Hitchcock version and had already wanted to read this one.I've been listening online to some of BBC Radio's World War One commemorations. Those programs have included both straightforward historical reports and panel discussions. There was a panel discussion about this novel, Buchan, and the book's popularity among soldiers and civilians. That the book's plot of German spies working to start a war was a way for people to try and understand or accept what the all-consuming battles in France and Belgium. I think this was the program I heard.

Richard Hannay is a native Scotsman living in London. Hannay served in the Boer War, worked as a mining engineer in Africa, and in his middle 30s has retired to London. Hannay is bored though. London does not hold much interest for him. He then meets his upstairs neighbor.

The neighbor comes to Hannay's apartment asking for help. Neighbor spins a tale of espionage and military plans for war. Of Jews conspiring to start war. Of Germans willing to wage war. Of Neighbor's information that could stop the plot and his need to hide from those enemy spies. Hannay, being a bored man-about-town says, "Sure, Old Chap. Wot wot."

Hannay wakes up the next morning and finds Neighbor dead in Hanny's spare room. The man was stabbed to death and the room searched. Hannay figures the bad guys left the dead man for Hannay to take the blame. Hannay ends up finding Neighbor's encrypted notebook and flees the apartment, just missing police capture. Hannay figures, "My my, what a close call, I do say. I'll head to the North, what? Back to Scotland."

Most of the rest of the novel is Hannay traveling incognito around Scotland and evading the German spies and police who are chasing him down. He tramps a bit, takes a train, lies about his identity, confers with a couple others, and decrypts the notebook. Hannay discovers more about the plot and Neighbor. Hannay meets up with a small town politician who will introduce Hannay to his uncle, a government Minister. Hannay is captured by Krauts and escapes using stored explosives to blow up half a farm house basement he has been imprisoned within.

Hannay meets the Minister, has the police case squared away, and starts working to identify the spies and stop them from taking British naval plans across the Channel.

1. I read about the anti-Semitism and was not surprised when Neighbor started spouting how "Jews are to blame". But, that was the only place in the book and the tale was more guff by Neighbor who, being a spy, was unwilling to tell the complete and true story to Hannay.
2. I did not know there are other Hannay books. I also did not know how many different film, stage, and radio versions were produced.
3. The chasing around Scotland reminded me of Kidnapped. Hannay spends a lot of time outdoors and on the road meeting different people.
4. The idea that mysterious and sinister people are pulling strings. Hannay is working against very powerful spies with plenty money. They have manpower, cars, and even planes to track Hannay.
5. The novel has no women. This was mentioned on the BBC show. Hitchcock had to invent a woman character for Hannay to interact with in the 1935 film.  There was discussion about Buchan and women and women characters but I cannot recall what was said.
6. A fun story. Fast moving and fine narration by Davidson.

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