Welcome to Day Two of Review Week, where I’ll be upfront with an issue of ignorance before getting into my review of this book. This slender tome came recommended by a friend, who said it was a classic ‘Boy’s Own’-style romp. And I kind of knew, but I don’t really know, what he meant by this.
A quick Google turns up this, which suggests that my interpretation of it was about right. But it’s odd that it’s still being used four decades after the paper itself has ceased publication; I suspect that the use of the phrase is something that will, like the readers of Boy’s Own, die out in time. If not, it’ll be intriguing, as it’ll suggest that people are happy to use a phrase which derives from something they know little about. It would be like me using the word Proustian, when my only concept of Proust comes from that Monty Python sketch. Oh, hang on, I do that, don’t I ? Damn.
Anyway, lest I turn this into a big ramble about me, like a proper reviewer, let’s talk about Buchan’s book, featuring the recurring character of Richard Hannay. There are spoilers ahead, so don’t say I haven’t warned you.
If your expectation of The Thirty-Nine Steps comes from the film versions with people hanging off the hands of Big Ben (or St Stephen’s Tower, if you prefer), well, be prepared to be disappointed. The plot involves Hannay, an everyman sort of chap, getting embroiled in an espionage situation, and then legging it from London to Scotland.
Maybe I’m too keen on the city where I live, but I have to admit that the middle section of the book didn’t really hold my interest very much – Hannay spends most of his time hiding in the wilds of Scotland, adopting a variety of suitably rural disguises to evade the people chasing him (fisherman one chapter, gamekeeper the next, that sort of thing). I found this a bit dull, really, and certainly didn’t get much sense of his pursuers being close at hand. In the final section of the book, Hannay returns to the city, and the nature of the spies’ plot is revealed, but by then I was suffering from a bit of a case of not-really-bothered-itis, to be honest.
I don’t know if the other books involving Hannay are less repetitive, and a bit more spy-centric and less bucolic, but I must admit that I don’t really feel any inclination to find out. The narrative’s quite likeable in a way, and the book’s really very short, but overall it felt more like a historical item than a book which spoke to me as a present-day reader.