John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps

In the autumn of 1914, just after the outbreak of the First World War, John Buchan, seriously ill with a duodenal ulcer which prevented him joining the army, was laid up in bed in a house on the cliffs at Broadstairs, Kent. Bored & restless, he wrote The ThirtyNine Steps, which in his dedication to his friend & publisher, Tommy Nelson, said it was the type of tale which “Americans know as the ‘dime novel’ and we know as the ‘shocker’ – a romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just within the borders of the possible”. The book was an immediate & lasting success, particularly with troops on the Front. It’s never been out of print, translated into over 40 languages and made into several films/serialisations on TV and radio. It is widely regarded as the first spy thriller, with Richard Hannay the ‘man on the run’, later influencing other writers like Ian Fleming, Frederick Forsyth & John Le Carré. In 1935 Buchan agreed to let a then largely unknown film director Alfred Hitchcock make it into a film, starring Robert Donat & Madeleine Carroll. It made Hitchcock’s name; the pursuit of Hannay on a train and over the Scottish moors, and the startling handcuffing of him to a doubting and icy blonde, are some of the most memorable scenes in British cinema. Recently a four-actor play, a hilarious parody based on the Hitchcock film, has had a long run in the West End and theatres all over Britain and the world.