Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Review: The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

Title: The Thirty-Nine Steps
Author: John Buchan
Genre: Classics
First published: 1915

Rating: 5 out of 10

Richard Hannay is an engineer who has traveled the world, and now finds himself living in London. He also finds himself bored with life with nothing to do. Conveniently, that very night, a mysterious little man named Scudder appears at his doorstep, and tells him a tale of spies, running from the German secret service, faked suicides, and codes. Hannay agrees to help the man by hiding him in his apartment, but on returning home the next day, he finds Scudder murdered and his home ransacked. After investigating a bit, he finds a black book that belonged to his late house-guest, filled with an illegible code. Knowing this to be what the killers were searching his home for, he assumes that they will be after him next. He also assumes that the London police will find evidence enough to convince everyone that it was he who murdered Scudder. Believing himself to have no choice, he leaps aboard a train to Scotland. He journeys about the countryside on foot, in disguises, on bicycles, and in stolen expensive cars, all the while deciphering the code in Scudder's black book and unraveling the mystery of what is going on around him.

Knowing absolutely nothing of the genre, I was curious to read this book, which even I know is famous for inspiring the spy / thriller genre. Minus the hot girl on our heroe's arm, I certainly could find a lot of similarities to other spy movies I've seen (I have to limit my knowledge to movies, as I haven't read nearly enough books to make comparisons).

This was a lot dryer than what I expected, and there was never any tone of desperation or stress, like I would expect from a man running from two formidable enemies. Even when he is captured, Richard seems to look upon all of the events with a collected, factual state of mind.

This book was very unrealistic - and I know that spy stories always are, but this was different.
Such as, wouldn't it have been better for Richard to disappear in London (where he already was) instead of head for the country? He is always bemoaning the fact that there is nowhere to hide there, while in London, this would certainly not have been the case.
Also, a suspiciously high number of absolute strangers were willing to help, and sometimes take risks for Richard. This was, of course, highly unlikely, but the main character never seemed to see anything odd in it.
Little things like this really took my mind away from the story, and annoyed me. There is a difference between probable (boring) and believable (well written).

At first, this book started off at a racing pace. Within just a few pages, Scudder has appeared at Richard's door, with tales of spies and intrigue, and a few pages later, he is murdered and Richard goes on the run. I absolutely loved it. It was Victorian with a dash of James Bond.
However, after this point, the book got progressively more and more boring up until the very end. The middle is all just about Richard traveling, and besides the stolen cars, most often not in very glamorous or "thrilling" ways. At one point, he is even riding a bicycle.
I actually wondered, after Richard had been traveling for awhile, if the author was tricking us, and the spies didn't exist at all. In fact, I found myself surprised when the spies finally materialized later, and proved themselves to be, indeed, real.

Scudder was the very best part of this book, and I fervently wish that he had lived, and gone traveling with Richard. That would have been interesting, as the man got to know his traveling companion without revealing too much, keeping Richard and the reader in constant suspense.

Though it did not lend itself to the "fleeing" scenes (code here for peaceful bicycle rides in the charming countryside), the British writing was a good combination in the more exciting scenes. Again, the beginning was the best portion of this little book, and though I loved the tone and overall feeling of the writing style, I wouldn't call this a "great book."