October 13, 1914
JOHN BUCHAN’S novel was written in a tearing hurry to capture wartime paranoia of the time.
For a few months, everyone was scared of German spies. And the haste shows – but not in a bad way.
The relentless chase it depicts spawned a genre of novels and (later) films.
The book’s hero Richard Hannay must prove his innocence when charged with murder as he is pursued by police and foreign spies the length of Britain.
Buchan called this style his “shocker”. It reads like a collection of short episodes, each perilous, a tiny bit far-fetched and laced with danger, clues and urgency.
When published as a novel it became a favourite for soldiers in the trenches because it provided escapism while not taxing the mind too much.
Now, 100 years later, it is regarded as a classic and the inspiration for on-the-run movies and films such as The Fugitive and North By Northwest. It’s even been hailed as the precursor to James Bond.
Buchan, born in Perth and educated at Glasgow and Oxford, went on to become a high-ranking politician, culminating in his appointment as governor general of Canada.
But it is for the creation of the patriotic and noble Hannay he is remembered.
The Thirty-Nine Steps paved the way for the action heroes and spy stories that populate blockbuster movies and best-selling novels today.