This detective novel introduces readers to a British mining engineer – Richard Hannay – who has just returned to London from Rhodesia. The story was written by Scottish author John Buchan and published in 1915. The tale is exciting, fast-moving, and action-packed. Not surprisingly, it was adapted into several different film versions, starting with the one produced by Alfred Hitchcock in 1935 (loosely based on the book) and ending with a BBC film produced for TV in 2008 – again, only loosely based on the book. So what ARE the 39 steps? I suggest reading the book before watching any of the movies based on the story. That’s where you’ll find the real answer.
The third film adaptation of the book came out in 1978, and is the most similar to the book in that it takes place right before World War I. But the ending is completely different. And the 39 steps mentioned in the title don’t lead to a beach (as in the book), but are found in Big Ben’s bell tower! (The 1959 version is basically a remake of Hitchcock’s film.)
Shortly after watching Hitchcock’s 1935 film version of his story, John Buchan declared the movie as “better than the book.” Ursula Buchan documented this in the biography she wrote about her grandfather, published in April 2019.
The Thirty-Nine Steps is one of the earliest examples of a “man-on-the-run” thriller. The book’s plot found its way into movies using the same archetype developed in Buchan’s book, including “North by Northwest” and (one of my favorites) “The Fugitive.”
Spies, Secrets, and Foreign Intrigue
This novel was Buchan’s first “shocker” – a story combining both personal and political drama. But it wouldn’t be his last. Buchan wrote four more books with Richard Hannay as the main character. The first two (Greenmantle and Mr. Standfast) take place during World War I, with Hannay opposing the Germans and their allies. The other two (The Three Hostages and The Island of Sheep) take place after the war, where the enemies are criminal gangs.
Buchan was a PROLIFIC writer of almost 30 novels spanning over 45 years(!) – from 1895 to 1941. (The last one was published in 1941 – one year after his death.) He also produced several dozen other types of literature, including poetry, essays, and biographies.
Although Buchan wrote many other thrillers after The Thirty-Nine Steps, most of which didn’t include Richard Hannay as the main character, this book was his most famous. It appeared first in serial form in a magazine called All-Story Weekly on June 5 and June 12, 1915.
The international intrigue Buchan enjoyed throwing into his stories could have something to do with the fact that he was involved in politics throughout his career. He was named 1st Baron Tweedsmuir in 1935, and for the last few years of his life (Nov. 2, 1935 to Feb. 11, 1940), he served as the 15th Governor General of Canada.
So What Are the 39 Steps Anyway?
The story behind the “steps” mentioned in the title of this first Richard Hannay book is interesting. The author wrote the book while in bed, suffering from a duodenal ulcer. Years later, one of his sons (William, who also became a writer) said that at the time, his father had been recovering at a private nursing home in Kent County, England, on the coast.
Leading down to the beach was a wooden staircase, which William’s 6-year-old sister counted and then excitedly announced: “There are 39 steps.” Apparently, there were actually 78 steps, but the author thought that cutting the number in half (to 39) would make a better title.
The setting of those steps, however – a steep staircase stretching from a garden at the top of the hill down to a beach – was identical to the type of steps featured in the book and plays a major part in the book’s climax.
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