39 Steps to Fame


Canada's History - - CONTENTS - By Kate Jaimet

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.

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