This is the novel for which the phrase “what a load of old tosh!” was invented. Buchan, in a short introduction, described it as coming from a genre “which we know as the ‘shocker’ – the romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible”. This is a thinly veiled attempt to pre-empt some of the more obvious criticisms of the utter implausibility of his story. Although having been told that the story will be wildly implausible doesn’t make the plot much easier to swallow.
Positives about the novel are elusive. If the plot is ludicrous, the characterisation is not much better. The descriptive writing, which some reviewers and readers enjoy, left me cold. And the politics of the novel are appalling – a point to which I will return. However, “The 39 Steps” is an important part of the “German spies in the UK” genre, which before the war was used to bolster the re-armament position, and which after the start of the war were all part of the literary attempt to portray the Germans as cunning and dastardly, but beatable, with the right amount of pluck and stiff upper lip. Hannay, the lead character, is thinly drawn – he is a Scottish ex-patriot used to hunting on the veldt, and finds the confines of London life boring and stifling. He treats the improbable events he finds himself engulfed in as an adventure – it would be no surprise to any reader to hear that this novel was first published as a weekly serial in Blackwood’s magazine, which not many years earlier had published Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”.
Through a series of increasingly outlandish plot twists, none of which are particularly inventive or entertaining, Hannay finds himself forming a thin blue line between the Great British Empire and the Hun. He slips through the fingers of his pursuers in a way that is so predictable as to deprive the novel of any suspense whatsoever, and the bad guys are eventually bested through a combination of Hannay’s intelligent deductions, clues left by his accomplice, and some good old British spunk. It almost defies parody. The novel is barely 100 pages long, and speeds along at a good pace, so if you have a couple hours spare I suppose there are worse ways of wasting them.
But be prepared for some really unpleasant racism and anti-Semitism, particularly the latter. This is more than simply the prevailing casual racism of the British upper classes of the early 20th century. Jewish conspiracy theories are referred to explicitly, and shown to be genuine. These ideas have no meaningful part whatsoever in the plot, other than to provide the vague suggestion that the plot underfoot is more than a simple case of one nation against another (the gang trying to steal British military secrets calls itself the “Black Stone” – amazingly the Black Stone have a secret base in the Scottish Highlands, right in the path of Hannay’s attempt to lay low). This all leaves a bad taste. It’s not thought through in any coherent way, and while done in an apparently off-hand way, without any apparent spite, represents more that the simple racist assumptions and language that were current at this time – they give a platform and credence to anti-Semitic ideologies that were to prove so poisonous only 20 years later.