Tea Tonic and Toxin: Mystery and Thriller Podcast and Book Club


by John Buchan

When a spy is murdered in Richard Hannay’s London flat, Hannay goes on the run. His goal: stay a step ahead of the police and the spies who will stop at nothing to find him.

Published in 1915, The Thirty-Nine Steps is one of the most popular espionage thrillers ever written. So … what are the thirty-nine steps? You’ll have to read and listen in!

Read: Buy it used, read it for free, or get it on Amazon. (Reading time: ~4 hours)

Reflect: Check out the conversation starters below.

Weigh In: Share your thoughts using the form below!

The Thirty-Nine Steps - Richard Hannay - Tea, Tonic & Toxin Podcast

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What Do You Think About Richard Hannay and The Thirty-Nine Steps?

Tell us what you think about the book, and we may share your thoughts in our next episode and send you a fabulous sticker! (It really is a pretty awesome sticker.)

The Thirty-Nine Steps - Richard Hannay - Tea Tonic & Toxin Podcast
The Thirty-Nine Steps - Richard Hannay - Tea, Tonic & Toxin Podcast
The Thirty-Nine Steps - Tea Tonic & Toxin Podcast

Richard Hannay and The Thirty-Nine Steps

Here are our initial thoughts. Please share your thoughts using the form above!

A Real Page Turner: Sudden surprises, rapid scene shifts, and changes of location, all elements of any number of spy thrillers like The Bourne Identity and detective on the run stories like Poker Face.

The Brink of War: The book starts in May 1914. In the book’s dedication, author John Buchan says he has “long cherished an affection for that elementary type of tale which Americans call the ‘dime novel,’ and which we know as the ‘shocker’ – the romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible.” He also notes, “these days … the wildest fictions are so much less improbable than the facts.”

Moral Code – It’s a story of good and evil where a brave man unselfishly risks his life to honor a dead man and a patriotic cause. Richard Hannay says, “I am an ordinary sort of fellow, not braver than other people, but I hate to see a good man downed, and that long knife would not be the end of Scudder if I could play the game in his place.”

Yearning for Adventure: Richard Hannay, a 37-year-old Scotsman raised in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), returns to an England, where he quickly becomes bored. He envies shop-girls and clerks and policemen for having something to do.

Then Something Happens – The occupant of the flat upstairs, a Kentucky man named Franklin Scudder, tells of a well-financed anarchic conspiracy.

Escape from Boredom: Richard Hannay is happy to be on the run. “It was going to be a giddy hunt, and it was queer how the prospect comforted me. I had been slack so long that almost any chance of activity was welcome.” He feels lighthearted and childlike, relishing the intrigue. From that point on, it’s nonstop action – trains, stolen cars, bicycles, running on foot …

Hiding in Plain Sight – He hides out in a dovecote, as his enemies would assume he had made for open country and search for him on the moors.

The Milk of Human Kindness – When things look bleak, Richard Hannay finds sanctuary and unexpected allies. Goodhearted souls feed, clothe, and shelter him. Sir Henry, a liberal candidate, puts him in touch with his godfather. A roadman nurses him back to health over 10 days.

Judging the Person vs. the Story: Hannay “had made a practice of judging the man rather than the story.”

Role Play – Hannay’s friend once told him if you’re playing a part, you have to convince yourself that you are that person. Richard Hannay disguises himself as a milkman, an Australian free trader, and a roadman. The spies also role play (“evil hiding in plain sight”). No one is who he seems.

Hannay spies on three men at the villa near the thirty-nine steps. They match the description of his pursuers, but their normal behavior causes self-doubt. “There seemed only one thing to do—go forward as if I had no doubts, and if I was going to make a fool of myself to do it handsomely.”

Everyone Has a Tell: In the villa, the old man sits back and taps his fingers on his knees, a gesture Richard Hannay had witnessed in Scotland.

Decoding the Numerical Cipher: Identifying the keyword gives you the sequence of the cryptic code. Julia Czechenyi is the key. “Julia” for the vowels. “Czechenyi” for the numerals for the principal consonants.

Poor Decision Making: Hannay finds Scudder dead and stays in his flat until morning. He steals the Black Stone car and sends it into a ravine, barely escaping with his life. He runs into a guy he knows (Marmaduke Jopley) and takes him hostage. He sits on top of a hill and is spotted.

An Ordinary Man as Hero: “Here was I, a very ordinary fellow, with no particular brains, and yet I was convinced that somehow I was needed to help this business through—that without me it would all go to blazes. I told myself it was sheer silly conceit, that … the cleverest people living, with all the might of the British Empire at their back, had the job in hand.”

Not Sherlock: Richard Hannay says, “I wasn’t any kind of Sherlock Holmes. But I have always fancied I had a kind of instinct … I used to use my brains as far as they went, and after they came to a blank wall I guessed, and I usually found my guesses pretty right.”

Scotland Is Dreamy: “We rumbled slowly into a land of little wooded glens and then to a great wide moorland place, gleaming with lochs, with high blue hills showing northwards.” I’m ready to board a plane — how about you?

About Tea, Tonic & Toxin

Tea, Tonic, and Toxin is a book club and podcast for people who love mysteries, thrillers, introspection, and good conversation. Each month, your hosts, Sarah Harrison and Carolyn Daughters, will discuss a game-changing mystery or thriller from the 19th and 20th centuries. Together, we’ll see firsthand how the genre evolved.

Along the way, we’ll entertain ideas, prospects, theories, doubts, and grudges, along with the occasional guest. And we hope to entertain you, dear friend. We want you to experience the joys of reading some of the best mysteries and thrillers ever written.

Tea, Tonic, and Toxin Book Club and Podcast - Mysteries and Thrillers

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