AN OLD REVIEW: THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS // BY GARY COCKER
On balance, it's maybe a little unfair to lay into a book almost as old as powered flight and plastic. The passage of time can be cruel on works of fiction, particularly when said novel leans so heavily on the defining event of its era.
However, when you're a new father short on time yourself and looking for a distraction from 4am teething, fairness doesn't come into your literary appraisals. I thought that opting for ‘the’ original spy novel – the work that inspired and informed Ian Fleming and countless others as a century of gadgets, explosions and double crossing unfolded – would be a safe bet. Sadly for me, The Thirty-Nine Steps did not live up to its billing.
Written in the shadow of WW1, John Buchan's novel follows the quite literally unbelievable exploits of Richard Hannay in working to thwart a German plot to drag the UK into war. Clearly first written as a serial, the plot thunders at a remorseless and exhausting pace, leaving no time at all to develop characters beyond their flimsy, exposition-laden facade.
This was very convenient for our master spy, whose ability to extricate himself from impossible situations with little time to pick apart the circumstances makes Roger Moore's Bond look like a gritty film noir interpretation of the genre. More than once I grimaced at the ludicrous ways in which our hero escaped near certain capture or worse and wondered how the people of the Edwardian-era coped with scam artists if that was the bar of believability.
Of course, this is probably the point of the novel. The horrors of the trenches are unimaginable for our generation, and any escapism that was on offer as shells exploded and rats swarmed shouldn't really be scoffed at. But, for me, this context is never put forward when people proclaim it to be one of the great spy novels. You could trip up in any WH Smith airport store and land on a book with a less obvious ending, more layered storylines, or even just hero's escapes that don't make me audibly scoff. I was also stunned to realise it's had so many film, TV, and radio adaptations, as the thin gruel of the original source material barely lends itself to brave and original interpretations beyond ‘man does impossible things and single handedly saves the country’.
Save yourself thirty eight steps by taking the step I should've done, and scroll to the next book on The Guardian bucket list.