May 31, 2023 | Rome, Italy

The 39 Steps

By |2018-03-21T18:27:09+01:00September 21st, 2005|Recent Reviews|

By John Buchan

Penguin Classics, 1915 (1998). 126 pages.


ike Conrad’s “Secret Agent,” a major icebreaker. Buchan, inspired by World War I, provides a blueprint for the modern psychological thriller (so beloved by Hitchcock). Without Buchan, there’s no Ian Fleming, Le Carré, or Dan Brown, and no “North by Northwest.”

In 126 pages, he covers spies, anarchists, colonialism, amoral stockbrokers (one Marmaduke “Marmie” Jopley), insider trading, rogue assassins, and anti-Semitism. Narrator Richard Hannay, a Scotsman in London, is told of a sinister plot by the Franklin P. Scudder, an enigmatic American foreign correspondent from Kentucky. “Away behind all the Governments and the armies,” Hannay surmises from Scudder, “there was a big subterranean movement going on, engineered by very dangerous people.” Scudder is then stabbed to death.

Suddenly, Hannay is running for the Moors. From there it is, very literally, a “shocker” — the word Buchan used for his new genre. A must-read.

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