by John Buchan
I decided to branch out a little bit and try out an older book that was neither science fiction or a classic and came up with John Buchan’s The 39 Steps. Ostensibly it is a mystery novel (at least, that is the section I found it in at the used book store), but I think ‘thriller’ is a more appropriate description, as it is the adventurous tale of Richard Hannay, an ordinary expatriate Scot living in London, who is caught up in a web of intrigue when he meets and is later framed for the murder of an international spy.
Hitchcock fans might be familiar with the story, as per his 1935 movie adaptation, but The 39 Steps, Richard Hannay, and John Buchan were all new to me, so I got to experience the unfolding of the mystery alongside Hannay himself. One aspect of this story that was not new to me is the method used to tell Hannay’s story. I knew without even looking it up that The 39 Steps was originally published as a serial novel. Serialized novels are stories that were published in segments over the course of some weeks or months. The format became popular in the Victorian era and stayed popular for quite some time before dying out, which is a damn shame, if you ask me. I’ve been saying for years that serials need to make a comeback because the short, intrigue-filled segments are perfect for hooking today’s readers. We do everything on the go and live in a world filled with distractions. Having short stories published weekly would string readers along and build a fanbase over a long stretch of time without asking for too much commitment from the reader, like a weekly TV drama. The melodramatic nature of serials is perfect for grabbing people’s attention and generating talk; it could be only a matter of time before people are discussing serial novels by the water cooler instead of the latest episode of Revenge or Scandal.
All that aside, The 39 Steps was a fun story to read. Richard Hannay is the perfect representation of the everyman caught up in an unlikely situation, one that calls on his intelligence, cleverness and bravery. The man-on-the-run aspect of Buchan’s novel was an early example of a trope that would be replicated over and over again, even today, almost 100 years after its publication. Apparently Hannay continued to have adventures in several more novels after his debut here, and his adventures (as well as his inherent patriotism) were enjoyed by those in WWI trenches. It’s easy to see why; Hannay embodies the ingenuity and fortitude that any man imagines he could possess in defense of his homeland, qualities that were replicated in traditional heroes for the decades to come.