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John Buchan and the birth of the modern spy novel

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan, published in 1915, is considered by many to be the progenitor of the modern spy novel, the classic story of a man on the run against a conspiracy, a lone hero working against a huge, corrupt, and seemingly unbeatable organisation, surviving on the strength of his wits. In Richard Hannay and his adventures in The Thirty-Nine Steps, we have what is perhaps the first novel of this genre.

John Buchan, was born in Perthshire, Scotland, in the late Victorian era. A clergyman’s son, Buchan studied the classics and law. He went to South Africa in 1902, forming a lifelong attachment to the country that became a recurring theme in his fiction. On returning to Britain, Buchan found commercial success as a writer with a book that is often considered his best adventure story - Prester John- published in 1910 and inspired by his experiences in the Boer war.

Long before the outbreak of the first world war, the English reading public was consumed by talk of a possible invasion. It was a volatile mix of jingoism and xenophobia inspired by the arms race with Germany, and stoked by bestselling books such as The Great War in England published in 1897 by William Le Queux, and the 1903 classic The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers. When war did break out in 1914, it became the perfect inspiration for a topical and thrilling tale of danger involving British secrets, German spies, and a conspiracy that could set off a global conflict. Buchan, who worked for the war propaganda bureau during the first world war, was on leave, recovering from illness, when he wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps, which was published in 1915.

While the form of this kind of narrative, referred to as a dime novel in those days, was not new, Buchan's contribution to the genre was to create, in his protagonist Richard Hannay, a unique character who is both a sleuth and man of action, a cross between Sherlock Holmes and James Bond. He is an appealing hero, intelligent, quick thinking, resourceful and brave…but ruthless when he needs to be. He was based on Edward Ironside, an old friend of Buchan’s from his days in South Africa.

The story is told in the first person, from Hannay’s point of view, and the narrative is driven as much by the protagonist’s character, as it is by the plot. Hannay is a man who likes a challenge. We meet him in London at the beginning of the novel. Having recently returned from South Africa, where he spent all of his adult life, we find him feeling, in his words, “pretty well disgusted", bored of his safe and easy life in England. He contemplates a return to the veldt, when adventure finds him, and he gets caught up in a high-octane international drama, involving a foreign attempt to drag Britain into war.

It's a page-turning adventure, which Buchan described as a "romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the border of the possible". Add to this, his sharp characterisation, loving depictions of the Scottish landscape, where much of the narrative takes place, and his prose, which is spare, lean, and contemporary, and we have a novel that is nearly impossible to put down.

The Thirty-Nine Steps, was first published as a serial adventure story in Blackwood's Magazine in August 1915. It came out as a book two months later, and it has never been out of print. It was ranked as one of the 100 best novels written in the English language by The Guardian in 2015. It’s been filmed three times, first by Alfred Hitchcock in 1935. Richard Hannay appears in four other books: Greenmantle, Mr. Standfast, The Three Hostages, and The Island of Sheep.

Aside from his novels, Buchan wrote poetry, history, and biography. Despite his success as a writer, he continued to be active in government service. In 1935, he was appointed the Governor-General of Canada, and it was during this period that he wrote and published notable historical biographies of figures such as Montrose, Sir Walter Scott, and Cromwell. When he died in Montreal in 1940, the world lost a fine statesman and a compelling storyteller.


Sources include:

The John Buchan Society

Encyclopaedia Brittanica


Books from Scotland

The Guardian


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