Here was I, a very ordinary fellow, with no particular brains; and yet I was convinced that somehow I was needed to help this business through – that without me it would all go to blazes. I told myself it was sheer silly conceit, that four or five of the cleverest people living, with all the might of the British Empire at their back, had the job in hand. Yet I couldn't be convinced. It seemed as if a voice kept speaking in my ear, telling me to be up and doing, or I would never sleep again.
Nearing the end of this seminal novel it occurred to me whether I hadn't seen as a child the initial and much-altered screen adaptation – which, of course, I certainly had. What was retained about the latter, however, had little to do with the former and a brief check into Hitchcock's rendition cleared the mist of all misconceptions. I distinctly recall a woman being involved as well as some kind of theatrical production, all of which in the original is notably absent; in fact, apart from a couple of rustic housewives there are no women to be found at all in The Thirty-Nine Steps. But then again, war was in the air and women cannot possibly participate with any effectiveness in the masterful schemes and dreams of great generals and their swollen ambitions – no, not in the slightest, neither then nor now, an altogether unthinkable premise. I'm afraid I'll just have to let that one sit and turn to our story.
Our hero is a hard-boiled bachelor by the name of Richard Hannay, thirty-seven, of Scottish provenance but fresh off the South African veld. During the course of his adventure the veld and its laws will come in handy as a source of wisdom (especially, as it were, a tale about a mare and a lion not even related by him) for the series of difficult decisions he is obliged to make. As the novel begins, Hannay opines that London has bored him so much in his brief sojourn that it will get one more day to make it up to him or be forever abandoned for rheboks and kudus. On that very day he is accosted on his doormat by a frantic American neighbor called Scudder. Scudder gains the Scotsman's attention with the barefaced claim that he "happen[s] at this moment to be dead"; that is to say, he has faked his death with a purloined corpse, a well-placed gunshot at a prognathous face and a little bit of stealth. Now he places himself in Hannay's power because the Scotsman "looks like the kind of man who would understand." Understand what, precisely? Nothing less than global conspiracy, as it turns out: a Jewish cabal, a German mandate to murder the Greek premier Karolides (a leader Hannay for some reason greatly admires), and the fifteenth of June, about a month hence. Partially out of boredom, partially in recognition of Scudder's abilities in language and disguise – both of which would lend him credibility as an intelligence officer – Hannay lets the fugitive lodge in his spare bedroom. The two men get along well enough considering the tension, but Hannay's curiosity cannot accept Scudder's excited scribblings in a little black book which never leaves his sight. Well, that is until Hannay comes home one night and finds Scudder belly up with a long knife through his heart. Hannay correctly concludes that the killers will suppose Scudder took a confidant and come for him, a situation he averts by fleeing north of the border to the highlands.
Buchan's prose is peppered with Scots use ("lade," "stickle," "burn," "bent," "haugh," to name a few), and robust in the slang of the day, which simultaneously dates our tale and imbues it with a particular authenticity. The descriptions of the moors and glens where Hannay traces a hunted path betray a learned and profound love of Scotland:
Behind me was the road climbing through a long cleft in the hills, which was the upper glen of some notable river. In front was a flat space of maybe a mile, all pitted with bog-holes and rough with tussocks, and then beyond it the road fell steeply down another glen to a plain whose blue dimness melted into the distance. To left and right were round-shouldered green hills as smooth as pancakes, but to the south – that is, the left hand – there was a glimpse of high heathery mountains, which I remembered from the map as the big knot of hill which I had chosen for my sanctuary. I was on the central boss of a huge upland country, and could see everything moving for miles. In the meadows below the road half a mile back a cottage smoked, but it was the only sign of human life. Otherwise there was only the calling of plovers and the tinkling of little streams.
Hannay benefits repeatedly from the kindness of strangers, and comes to enjoy the chase even when faced with rather unforgiving odds. And who then are the enemies? A triptych of Germans now standard issue in tradecraft and cloak-and-dagger thrillers: a fat man with a lisp, his inseparable tall, dark, thin comrade, and an "old man with a young voice who could hood his eyes like a hawk." Hannay's pursuit begins by monoplane and sedan, then emerges from all sides as if a noose were tightening around his leathery neck. Also interspersed are Hannay's gritty observations on the tiniest and most perfunctory of actions, a talent which has few peers in English literature: "Their mouths were full of prices"; "He was a whining fellow with a churchyard face"; "Slowly that thorn let me go"; "Bed may have been his chief object, but I think there was something in the foot of a bottle"; "Plenty of people invited me to their houses, but they didn't seem much interested in me." Ah, Mr. Hannay, if they only knew.