I can remember the first time I read The Thirty Nine Steps. I was thirteen and was immediately hooked. Over the course of a single weekend, I devoured all five of the novels that featured Richard Hannay. As part of my Classics Club list, I’ve recently re-read it to see if my views have changed.
Written in 1915 and set on the eve of the First World War, The Thirty Nine Steps was the first of John Buchan’s novels to feature Hannay, a Rhodesian mining engineer who has returned to the old country having made some money. Having become somewhat bored with the London scene, Hannay gets involved with a peculiar, self-professed spy, Scudder, who claims to have secret information about a nefarious plot to assassinate a Greek politician, Karolides, in London and cast Europe into war. Hannay gives Scudder shelter in his flat, only to find him murdered there some days later. Driven both to avoid being arrested for Scudder’s murder and to stymie the plot, Hannay escapes to the Highlands, pursued by police and plotters.
There ensues a hectically paced series of chases, captures and escapes, featuring stereotyped Scottish labourers, politicians and one of the genre’s classic gang of villains, the Black Stone, and its leader:
“As he spoke his eyelids seemed to tremble and to fall a little over his keen grey eyes. In a flash the phrase of Scudder's came back to me, when he had described the man he most dreaded in the world. He had said that he 'could hood his eyes like a hawk'.”
Of course, after a string of exciting escapades, Hannay solves the mystery, thwarts the plot and saves the day, enabling Great Britain to enter the First World War still in possession of its military secrets.
On a re-reading, I could immediately see why I loved it so much as a child. It’s incredibly fast-paced with plenty of action and a series of mini-cliff-hangers. Hannay is drawn as an uncomplicated and old-fashioned sort of hero, thoroughly decent, dashing and brave, with a stiff upper lip and a willingness to “play the game”. By contrast, the Black Stone are evil and deceitful, the worst kind of baddies.
On top of all that, Buchan adds a liberal dose of conspiracy theory and international intrigue. Scudder describes his discovery of the plot in suitably melodramatic terms:
“I got the first hint in an inn on the Achensee in Tyrol. That set me inquiring, and I collected my other clues in a fur-shop in the Galician quarter of Buda, in a Strangers' Club in Vienna, and in a little bookshop off the Racknitzstrasse in Leipsic. I completed my evidence ten days ago in Paris. I can't tell you the details now, for it's something of a history. When I was quite sure in my own mind I judged it my business to disappear, and I reached this city by a mighty queer circuit.
I left Paris a dandified young French-American, and I sailed from Hamburg a Jew diamond merchant. In Norway I was an English student of Ibsen collecting materials for lectures, but when I left Bergen I was a cinema-man with special ski films. And I came here from Leith with a lot of pulp-wood propositions in my pocket to put before the London newspapers. Till yesterday I thought I had muddied my trail some, and was feeling pretty happy. Then—“
Now it may be thirty years since I first read it, but I haven’t really changed all that much. I still like a good adventure story, still love the idea of the amateur spy lurking in dark and exotic corners of the world and remain partial to the atmosphere and style of pre-WW1 Europe. So I should still have enjoyed The Thirty Nine Steps.
And I sort of did. But not totally. In fact, I felt quite uncomfortable at times. Buchan was a product of the Victorian age, an Establishment figure, having served as an MP in Great Britain and, later, as Governor General of Canada. He therefore was imbued with the attitudes and beliefs of Empire, including views on racial issues that are, fortunately, totally unacceptable and reprehensible today. By way of example, Scudder describes the forces behind the political unrest in Europe thus:
“The capitalists would rake in the shekels, and make fortunes by buying up wreckage. Capital, he said, had no conscience and no fatherland. Besides, the Jew was behind it, and the Jew hated Russia worse than hell.
'Do you wonder?' he cried. 'For three hundred years they have been persecuted, and this is the return match for the pogroms. The Jew is everywhere, but you have to go far down the backstairs to find him. Take any big Teutonic business concern. If you have dealings with it the first man you meet is Prince von und zu Something, an elegant young man who talks Eton-and-Harrow English. But he cuts no ice. If your business is big, you get behind him and find a prognathous Westphalian with a retreating brow and the manners of a hog. He is the German business man that gives your English papers the shakes. But if you're on the biggest kind of job and are bound to get to the real boss, ten to one you are brought up against a little white-faced Jew in a bath-chair with an eye like a rattlesnake. Yes, Sir, he is the man who is ruling the world just now, and he has his knife in the Empire of the Tzar, because his aunt was outraged and his father flogged in some one-horse location on the Volga.’”
Now there are some commentators who claim that Buchan is just reflecting the views of Scudder, who is pretty disreputable and discredited figure. But the general tone of contempt for other races and nationalities is continued elsewhere in the book. Hannay comments upon the planned assassination of the Greek Prime Minister:
“The fifteenth day of June was going to be a day of destiny, a bigger destiny than the killing of a Dago.”
And so on and so on.
I’ve commented in the past about seeing distasteful and outdated views in literature in the context of the time the relevant book was written but, for some reason, the appearance of overt and casual racism in The Thirty Nine Steps gave me a far stronger emotional reaction than equally abhorrent views in books that I liked less. Maybe it is that juxtaposition of an old favourite novel with views with which I disagree so strongly.
In any event, The Thirty Nine Steps remains a classic adventure story that I found still enjoyable but far less so than it was thirty years ago.