The Thirty Nine Steps by John Buchan today reads rather more like a children's book than the adults' yarn it was intended to be. Like James Bond's adventures the escapades of Richard Hannay now seem like cliche. But unlike we world-weary adults, younger readers will come to The Thirty Nine Steps fresh and untainted by the myriad versions of Hannay we've seen on TV, film and stage (or even in the pub!).
In attempting to read with fresh eyes I found myself enjoying the book despite myself. For those few people unfamiliar with the book: just before the First World War a bored Richard Hannay, ex-mining engineer fresh from working in the colonies, kicks about London. On returning to his flat he finds a man called Scudder hiding with a strange tale to tell. The man's eventual murder in Hannay's flat and Hannay's subsequently becoming wanted by the police for this crime, leads him on an adventure through the Scottish moors whilst he tries to outrun and outwit not just the law but also the sinister characters who murdered Scudder, before the story's final resolution on the East coast of England.
There is little to it other than the plot and as such it will not stretch young adults with any brilliant description or characterisation. It does however introduce readers to Edwardian language and gives them the kick that comes from thinking you're reading a book intended for grown-ups. There's plenty to discuss in the creation of atmosphere and suspense, in the language of the period, in ideas of class and Empire, in the development of the spy thriller, and the way in which an effective page-turner is constructed.
Like Bond, the plot is driven forward by vague political intrigues, here involving the balance of power in Europe and assassinations of key political figures (all very 'origins of the First World War'). This is not very easy to understand as child, but like the Bond plots, does it really matter? The excellent and exciting chase is the thing.
Death: Scudder's murder involves him being impaled to to the floor with a large knife. This happens off stage so-to-speak and the body is discovered after the event. Hannay, once he is a suspect, is of course in danger of being hanged if caught by the police; a fact to which he makes reference at least twice.
Peril: lots! But it is, I think, more exciting than scary. As with most first person narratives of this kind you never doubt that he's going to get away with it all somehow. The pleasure is watching how. He is chased, he gets tired, dirty and hungry and one occasion blows himself up, but he rarely is downhearted which makes it all seem less real. In a true Boys' Own story style of a colonial Hannay wants action and danger, he wants to be chased, he lives for it, and so there is little fear.
Anything else? The prejudices of the period include much in the way of national stereotypes (especially on the subjects of Jews and Germans), of class stereotypes, and of somewhat imperialistic language. However it could be much worse. There is one use of the word Dago, and several lengthy passages talking of the power and influence of the Jew as perceived at the time, and a range of generalisations about Germans and others but, provided I gave a brief explanation about the perceptions of the time, I wouldn't let the prejudices of the narrative stop me giving it to most bright children assuming some emotional maturity goes alone with their brains.
The only other thing to be aware of is that this is a world populated entirely by men! There is a housemaid at one point who renders Hannay peculiarly tongue tied by opening the door proving the house to be middle-class (the upper-classes had butlers) a group with whom Hannay says he has no common ground. Her appearance is brief but in representing the middle-class via her employers she appears to floor Hannay the way nothing else ever does. Very odd!
Other reviews and useful websites:
The text is available for free via Project Gutenberg in a variety of e-formats.
There are many articles about the places used in the novel. The scene of the denoument is for example covered by the magazine Bygone Kent.
There is a John Buchan Society.
There is a fairly recent review, by ex MI5 chief Stella Rimmington, of The Thirty Nine Steps in the wider context of Buchan's work in the Daily Telegraph from 2011.
There is a blog review by Robin Stevens from a postcolonial perspective here
There are abridged and adapted children's versions including by Usbourne here, but with gifted readers I would feel confident letting them loose on the real thing.
Also of interest is the current stage version based on Hitchock's film classic.