"The 39 Steps" by John Buchan
It's surprising how Scottish this book is. In some sense, it's a tour of Scotland a century ago. (The 39 Steps was published in 1915.) And Buchan -- never heard that name before -- doesn't stint on the Scots dialect. You scratch your head over lines like:
"He rins about in a wee motor-cawr, and wad speir the inside oot o' a whelk"
-- but eventually you "ken" them.
Buchan called this book a "shocker"; that was the contemporary term for thriller. But it has a gentle, amiable tone (unlike today's more masculine paperbacks) which is visible in the Beatrix Potter-like chapter titles: "The Adventure of the Spectacled Roadman," "The Dry-Fly Fisherman." And it's much more upper class! One of the great pleasures of Richard Hannay (Buchan's hero, who would go on to star in four other books) is getting back into evening dress.
Hannay seems an impossible -- though delightful -- hero, then you learn, from the biographical note, that Buchan's life was even more exotic: "despite ill health he was a barrister and member of Parliament, in addition to being a writer, soldier and publisher. He was created Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsfield in 1935 and became the Governor-General of Canada, until his death in 1940." No wonder Canada is so livable, presided over by clever novelists like Buchan!
(Notice the bad health -- a valuable gift to a writer. That's why Buchan wrote this book (as he says in the dedication, to Thomas Arthur Nelson): he had a winter illness -- a duodenal ulcer -- and ran out of "shockers" to read... "and was driven to write one for myself.")
No doubt I recall the movie quite dimly, but this book seems nothing like it. And the style is utterly contemporary. If the publishing date was 1982, you wouldn't be surprised. Except for its blistering anti-Semitism (or is that meant to be ironic?)
And what a great title!
The 39 Steps clearly conveys how terrifying airplanes were when first they appeared over the burns and glens of low-lying Scotland.
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