The 39 Steps – John Buchan

I don’t think I have seen the film fully – I always join it part way through. So I know the middle and end…

It starts at a pace. Already Hannay has been caught up in the plot and will shortly go on the run following the murder of a man in his apartment. Some odd things already, apparently it was a simple enough thing in those days to be able to get a dead body to assist in faking a death, there are racist undertones (not so under at points), the anarchists Hannay is about to take on are backed by the Jews. I shall have to check when the book was written, it has attitudes of its time. Interesting, the story was first serialised in 1915, and is set in pre-war 1914).

The book moves apace. Hannay goes on the run to Scotland. It is a very Boy’s Own Paper type story. The good guys are instantly recognisable and he blurts out the tale time after time. In turn they help him instead of turning him over to the police. He is caught and he knowledge of explosives allows his escape. The luckiest of men-on-the-run he eventually gets back to London, plays a main part in identifying and then capturing the bad guys. The Germans of course.

Despite the odd attitudes (to modern eyes), the book is pacy, the story is totally unbelievable, the twists and turns so unlikely. Meeting chaps who instantly become good pals and have highly powerful uncles. Very BOP. It could have graced BOP at almost any time.

As for the film version of 1935. The film bears little relation to the book. The book has no heroine, and the 39 Steps are not a secret weapon, there is no music hall finale. The book is maybe better though I would have to see the film again to be certain.

One odd thing that struck me. A high ranking French naval officer is to go back to France, the cross-channel ferry is no good so he is to go from Portsmouth on a destroyer. A destroyer to return a French naval officer? Maybe it was the time for such things but I would have thought something a shade smaller would have been more likely.

And one other odd thing. Early on there is a Latin quote which is never explained. Mors Janua Vitae – which is Death, the Gateway to Life – was this a commonplace phrase in 1915?

An entertaining read, probably not one to re-read


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