Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The 39 Steps: original version

by Linda Thornburg, guest blogger
I had never read the book. (Oh come on, most of you have only seen the Hitchcock version.) I couldn’t put down John Buchan’s 1915 thriller The 39 Steps. The writing is so visual I could understand why Hitch picked it. It drips noir.
“I had a cigar in my mouth, I remember, as I pushed open the smoking-room door. The lights were not lit, which struck me as odd. I wondered if Scudder had turned in already.
I snapped the switch, but there was nobody there. Then I saw something in the far corner which made me drop my cigar and fall into a cold sweat.
My guest was lying sprawled on his back. There was a long knife through his heart which skewered him to the floor.”

Christopher Hitchens dubbed Buchan “The father of the modern spy novel.” Buchan’s Hannay is the prototype of the man-on-the-run staple and the forerunner of the quick-thinking, hard-drinking characters of Dashiell Hammett.
“I went into the darkened smoking-room where the rays of morning light were beginning to creep through the shutters. I breakfasted off a whisky-and-soda and some biscuits from the cupboard. By this time it was getting on for six o’clock. I put a pipe in my pocket and filled my pouch from the tobacco jar on the table by the fireplace.
As I poked into the tobacco my fingers touched something hard, and I drew out Scudder’s little black pocket-book…”

No wonder it has been adapted for three film versions, a TV movie, and a Broadway hit. The Broadway version is essentially a send-up of the Hitchcock film; nevertheless, Buchan's story is the basis. Media may change, but story is essential. This is good story.
So good, in fact, Hitch borrowed a classic scene from it for North by Northwest. Hitch, I’m devastated.
The 39 Steps has been continuously in print since it was first serialized by Blackwood’s Magazine in August and September of 1914. (And we think we invented the cliffhanger with Dallas. Millennial apologies to Homer, Collins, Dickens, Dumas, Stowe and Pearl White, The Perils of Pauline.) This gorgeous edition of  The 39 Steps has a forthright, personal introduction (with a mild dis of Hitchcock), by Buchan’s grandson, Toby Buchan.
Be sure to check out Daedalus Books' Forum pages on all things espionage. Tune in for tomorrow’s DG episode on Bad Girls of Film Noir. (On and off screen.)
Guest blogger Linda Thornburg is a filmmaker and writer. In days of old, all of her characters would have been considered "bad girls."


  1. That mystery-laced title, I read in Wiki, does not refer to the organization's name in the novel, but to physical steps.
    Good! I always thought the Hitchcock film's idea suggested that Hannay was being pursued by a wildcat branch of Alcoholics Anonymous.
    Now I have to find out where the steps of this piquant title lead!

    1. As Buchan's grandson Toby says in his introduction, "Hitchcock's film bears about as much resemblance to the novel as 'West Side Story' does to a late-sixteenth-century performance of 'Romeo and Juliet.'" Love your AA analogy!

  2. Dear Ms. Thornburg,

    I happily abide by your judgment in this area. That said: Alfred Hitchcock, wasn't he a little, well, unchivalrous (putting it mildly)? And despite his tremendous film prowess - in commemorating classic directors, Hitchcock is arguably an also-ran next to Alan Smithee.

    Baron V. Mugenhausen

    1. Ah, Dear Baron, Smithee always gets the last word!

  3. Methinks the Daily Glean needs more exposure. These blogs are brilliant!

    Your fan,

  4. Dear JCatnip,
    Thank you. Please share of fb.