Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Classics Club: The Thirty-Nine Steps by James Buchan


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Despite never actually having read Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), I was familiar with it as one of the earliest hero-on-the-run suspense-thriller-mysteries, and one that was influential on the genre as a whole.  I take a historical interest in my favorite genre, and felt I needed to read it.



What a grand adventure!  I had to think that this is the precursor to those heroes so prevalent in today's thrillers (you know, the ones that get out of bed, get beat up, shot, drowned and beat up again all before they take the dame back to bed) but yet it didn't seem hokey.  Hannay was just this side of believable, like a hero should.  He was crush-worthy for the female reader and role model-worthy for the males.

The action of this book takes place just before the Great War starts (but is written after the War started, so it is written with the knowledge that the War will start, if that makes sense) so it also made me think a lot about the War, about patriotism during that War, and about how this book would have been the most excellent sort of propaganda.  It depicts an average man who realizes the fate of Great Britain, if not the world, rests on knowledge he has, so he steps up to the plate and does what he can.  I hate to borrow the overused phrase "stiff upper lip" for Blighty, but that is exactly it. Hannay is willing to die--even as an expatriate Scotsman just over from Rhodesia--to protect home and country.  Just an average guy (okay, maybe a little above average in strength and endurance but we'll not quibble) and he single-handedly beats the Germans at their own game.  Pretty good stuff to be reading in the muddy, infected, hell-on-earth trenches.

So yes, I started thinking about what a fun adventure it was, and ended by mourning the slaughtered Tommys who probably died a little happier for having read this.


 I suffered nostalgia for a time I've never experienced--that time, right before the Great War, when a speeding car went 40 mph and putting on working man's clothing could disguise a gentleman, when airplanes were a novelty and to be hatless was unconscionable.   I felt sad for the innocence that was lost in that War, sad that books like this--new as it was--would only have a few more years to exist, a few more years before violence and sex become the staples of fiction.  (Let me note here that there is no romance in this book--not even one slightly attractive woman.  How refreshing!)

I felt patriotic, too, for a country that isn't mine, for a cause that is hard to remember.

I also felt a longing for Scotland.  Apparently Buchan was Scottish; his descriptions of Scotland are lovely.  I've always wanted to visit and the mental images of Hannay's on-foot adventures to the highlands (or was it the lowlands?) added fuel to that flame.

Most of all, though, I felt satisfied by a good read.  It was a darn good yarn, and I enjoyed every moment of it--and for some reason, especially the ginger biscuits.  I'll never eat gingersnaps without thinking of Hannay hiding in the heather, munching on ginger biscuits.


Patriotism!  This was the subtle undertone and blatant overtone throughout the entire book.  Even an expatriate will answer the call to save Great Britain when it comes, because of natural patriotism.

 It is a level of dedication and love for country that I don't think we, in the U.S., will ever experience again. As such, it was almost a novel idea to me, here in this skeptical, cynical age.



My explanation of the Classics Club can be found here
and the Classics Club itself can be found here.

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