39 Steps to Fame
WHY A POTBOILER PENNED BY A GOVERNOR GENERAL OF CANADA MORE THAN A CENTURY AGO CONTINUES TO THRILL PEOPLE TODAY.
A potboiler penned by a Governor General of Canada more than a century ago continues to thrill people today.
When John Buchan wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps, he hardly expected his “elementary” spy thriller to become an enduring work of literature. Laid up with a digestive disorder in the fall of 1914, the Scottish author, lawyer, and statesman, who would later become the fifteenth Governor General of Canada, penned the novel as a sort of lark.
“My Dear Tommy,” Buchan wrote in the book’s dedication to his friend Thomas Nelson. “You and I have long cherished an affection for that elementary type of tale … which we know as the ‘shocker’ — the romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible. During an illness last winter I exhausted my store of those aids to cheerfulness, and was driven to write one for myself. This little volume is the result.”
Published in book form in October 1915 and priced at a shilling a copy, Buchan’s “little volume” became an instant success. It sold twenty-five thousand copies before the year was out, and another thirty-four thousand copies in 1916. Now, more than a century later, The Thirty-Nine Steps has never been out of print.
It has spawned three movie adaptations, several radio plays, and an award-winning stage show that continues to run in London and New York. (The titles of the adapted stage and movie versions are usually abbreviated as The 39 Steps.)
“You would have never, never dreamt that it would have be- come the bestseller it became,” said Carleton University literature professor emeritus Michael Gnarowski. “I think the reason for it is because The Thirty-Nine Steps is extremely adaptable: to movies, to TV, to the stage, as a radio play. It’s very physical: people jumping on stages and so forth. Everybody played with the story, and people, in some ways shamelessly, took the story and adapted it to suit their own needs.”
Spy fiction arose as a literary genre in Britain in the years between the turn of the twentieth century and the beginning of the First World War. Early spy novels typically featured shadowy underground networks, often German, whose plots to overthrow the British empire were foiled by a lone patriotic hero. In his introduction to the book Spy Fiction, Spy Films, and Real Intelligence, intelligence expert and history professor Wesley Wark traces the emergence of British spy novels from the “genetic soup” of nineteenth-century detective novels, anarchist novels, terrorist novels, and American dime novels, in the years just before the First World War — “years in which feverish concerns for national security, imperial strength and impending conflict provided rich material for the new literary formula-to-be.”
Adds Gnarowski: “England was full of rumours. The magazines were publishing stories about spies. Schoolboys were watching for submarines. There was a lot of that in the air, and so this could be fed into it.”
When he began writing The Thirty-Nine Steps, the thirtynine-year-old Buchan was already an accomplished author. The son of a Scottish church minister, he had put himself through Oxford University with scholarships and the income earned from his writing. By 1914, he had published six novels and dozens of short stories, as well as several works of non-fiction. Connected to British high society through his Oxford friendships and his marriage, he was also a diplomat, lawyer, and politician. In 1901 he went to South Africa to spend two years as a secretary to the British High Commissioner. Upon his return he practised law for a while but was more drawn to literature and journalism. He also ran as a Unionist candidate for Parliament in 1911.
Politics loomed large as Buchan set pen to paper to write The Thirty-Nine Steps. The First World War had begun in July 1914, and Britain had entered the war in August. He sought to enlist as a soldier, but his age, his family situation (he had two children by 1914), and especially his ill health (he suffered from a duodenal ulcer) held him back. Instead of fighting, he spent the early months of the war writing from his bed at a seaside convalescent home in Kent.
“When Buchan writes The Thirty-Nine Steps, he reaches into his knowledge [of international affairs], because by then he’s already well placed in the British establishment,” said Gnarowski. “Buchan knows that there is all sorts of skullduggery going on in the background, and he draws upon it.”
The Thirty-Nine Steps begins with the hero, Richard Hannay, feeling “pretty well disgusted with life.” A British South African mining engineer who has “made his pile” in the colonies, this rugged man of action is bored and disillusioned with life in London, longing for adventure and open spaces. Suddenly, adventure surfaces in the form of Franklin P. Scudder, a furtive fellow who claims to be a secret agent and says he has discovered a plot against Britain by a subterranean network of “very dangerous people.” Hannay agrees to conceal Scudder in his flat for a few weeks, until the moment is right to intervene and foil the plot. Before the moment arrives, Scudder is murdered, leaving Hannay with a dead body in his apartment and the responsibility to save the British Empire on his hands.
Key to the story, Scudder has also left behind a notebook, written in a secret code, that lays out the details of the plot against Britain. Hannay pockets the notebook, sneaks out of his flat disguised as a milkman, and catches the next train to the Scottish Highlands.
Wanted for murder by the police and pursued by Scudder’s mysterious enemies, Hannay must elude capture for long enough to decode Scudder’s notebook, figure out the plot against Britain, and bring it to the attention of the proper authorities, thus proving his innocence and saving the Empire in one fell swoop. In the ensuing chase, Hannay climbs crags, jumps trains, dons disguises, dodges planes, and blows up a makeshift prison cell.
Along the way he discovers that the enemy spies intend to steal Britain’s naval defence plans and spirit them onto a ship bound for
Germany. Their rendezvous is a house on a cliff with thirty-nine steps down to the sea — a setting inspired by the location where Buchan was writing. Hannay foils the villains and saves England from invasion, just as the First World War begins. The hero also promptly joins the army. Not surprisingly, the book was popular among British soldiers serving in the trenches.
Though Buchan did not invent the spy novel, he combined the elements of breakneck chases, clever disguises, technological gadgetry, mysterious clues, subtle and nefarious villains, and an everyman hero thrust into a high-stakes, undercover game of survival, bringing it all together with a tightly woven, action-packed plot-line. The result would serve as a prototype for spy novels and movies through the century to come.
Novelist Graham Greene adapted Buchan’s formula in his own much darker and more pessimistic novels. “Richard Hannay’s … long flight and pursuit — across the Yorkshire and the Scottish moors, down Mayfair streets, along the passages of Government buildings, in and out of Cabinet rooms and country houses, toward the cold Essex jetty with the thirty-nine steps … were to be a pattern for adventure-writers ever since,” wrote Greene.
After his recovery in the spring of 1915, Buchan went to France during the Second Battle of Ypres to serve briefly as a front-line correspondent for the Times before being recruited to work in the British Intelligence Corps. His duties included escorting dignitaries on tours of the front lines and preparing battle reports for senior officials. He was not an active combatant, but the conditions at the front — poorquality food, constant tension, a lack of regular routine — apparently played havoc with his health. In 1916 he suffered a relapse of his intestinal condition and was ordered back to England to recover. By 1917, he had become the director of intelligence in the British Ministry of Information. Meanwhile, he penned an ongoing history of the war that was published in fifty-thousand-word instalments.
Somehow, during this time, Buchan found the opportunity and inspiration to write two sequels to The Thirty-Nine Steps, which recounted Hannay’s experiences as a soldier and sometimes secret agent for England in the First World War. In Greenmantle, Hannay is joined by a team of three other secret agents to foil a German plot that involves using a false Islamic prophet to rally the Muslim world in support of the kaiser. In Mr. Standfast, a darker and more introspective novel, Hannay and his friends are joined by a British nurse, Mary Lamington, who also serves as an intelligence agent, in the last stand against the German spy ring, as the First World War draws to its bloody end. Hannay and Lamington fall in love, and the story leaves them retiring to the Cotswolds to mourn their dead comrades and build a new life together.
As peace settled over Europe, the exploits of Richard Hannay might have faded into literary history. But, by the 1930s, European peace was being threatened by totalitarian regimes in Italy and Germany, and early spy stories including The Thirty-Nine Steps found a renewed audience. This time, film was the medium, and the director was Alfred Hitchcock.
Hitchcock admired Buchan’s writing and acknowledged the novelist’s influence in the making of his 1934 thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much. Buchan consulted with Hitchcock on his adaptation of The Thirty-Nine Steps, which hit the cinemas in April 1935, just a few months before Buchan would arrive in Canada to take up his role as Governor General Lord Tweedsmuir. (King George V had insisted on granting Buchan a baronetcy, since it went against tradition for the Governor General to be a commoner.)
In his adaptation, Hitchcock captured the novel’s feeling of pursuit and suspense with quick cuts between scenes of peril and escape. Though he stayed true to the overall storyline, Hitchcock set the movie in the 1930s and introduced two important differences in his script.
First, instead of a coded notebook, the secret to the plot against Britain resides in the brain of a music-hall performing artist called Mr. Memory, who is dramatically shot by the villain in the movie’s climax but reveals the secret to Hannay on his deathbed.
Second, Hitchcock introduces women into the story. The world of adventure was seen as exclusively a man’s world when Buchan penned his novel, but the First World War had proven that women — as Red Cross nurses, ambulance drivers, and sometimes even spies — could also take action in the face of danger. This was reflected in Hitchcock’s adaptation, as it was in Buchan’s third book in the Richard Hannay series, Mr. Standfast.
The two principal female figures in the movie The 39 Steps are the mercenary spy Annabella, who takes the place of Scudder, and the love interest, Pamela. The love plot adds another complexity to Hannay’s dilemma: Not only must he prove his innocence and save the Empire, he must also win the girl.
“The fact that there’s a love story going on at the same time is a stroke of genius, I think — and the fact that they don’t really like each other at the beginning, but they’re forced together,” said Patrick Barlow, an actor and playwright who in 2005 adapted the Hitchcock film into a West End London stage comedy in which all of the roles are played by four actors. “She wants to be free, but of course she’s madly in love with him. And he’s madly in love with her, but he’s acting as though he can’t be bothered with all that. It’s a very English thing, the English refusing to admit their feelings. Being English myself, and suffering from that myself, I find that very funny. There’s endless comic material there.”
What makes the novel, originally written as a thriller, fodder for comedic treatment in the twenty-first century? Partly, it’s the fact that the narrative innovations of 1915 — shadowy villains! mysterious clues! — have become spy-thriller clichés; and the technological wonders — biplanes! motorcars! — come across as hilariously dated.
But, more profoundly, it’s the narrative structure of the story — the quick succession of narrow escapes made possible by a sequence of disguises and assumed identities — that drives the comedy. The physical adventure of Hitchcock’s movie becomes the physical comedy of Barlow’s play, as an endless succession of trains, planes, and rugged moorlands are crammed into the confined space of a theatre stage and four overworked actors take on more than 150 parts, frenetically changing hats, coats, and accents as they re-enact the chase.
“I thought, if I’m going to do this for four people, it’s got to be insanely suspenseful,” Barlow said. “Because for me, the more impossible it is to put on the stage, the funnier it is.”
Barlow’s The 39 Steps opened at London’s Tricycle Theatre in 2006 to rave reviews, premiered on Broadway in 2007, won the 2007 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy, and has played in over forty countries worldwide, including Canada. It continues to play in New York, in London, and in theatres large and small across North America and the United Kingdom.
Would Lord Tweedsmuir have liked what became of his story and its transition from thriller to farce? That’s hard to say, but his descendants seem to approve.
“The Buchan family has been very, very loyal to this and very positive about it. They were thrilled, absolutely thrilled, at the fact that it’s been such a success,” said Barlow. “They come to first nights. And there are hundreds of Buchans. There’s little baby Buchans and elderly Buchans, and they’re all absolutely lovely — and absolutely positive about this, even though it’s not quite based on the book, based more on the film. But they didn’t have any problem with that.”
Adapted and readapted over the past century — whether as a film, a play, a thriller, or a comedy — the story still has the power to enthrall.
// Learn more at CanadasHistory.ca/39Steps
A scene from the movie The 39 Steps. Actor Robert Donat, right, played the role of Richard Hannay.
John Buchan and Alfred Hitchcock confer during the shooting of the 1935 movie The 39 Steps.
Above: A scene from the popular theatrical production The 39 Steps, adapted as a comedy for contemporary audiences. Left: A billboard at London’s Criterion Theatre.