Sunday, December 19, 2010

The 39 Steps by John Buchan

Richard Hannay is in London and BORED.  As we all know, that's a sign the shit's about to go down, and it does:  a spy breaks into his flat and tells him some far-fetched story about a plot to kill a major political figure and start a world war.  At first Hannay's like, "Crazy dude is crazy!  But I'll keep him around because he amuses me."  After a while, however, he starts to think maybe there's something to what the spy says.  One afternoon he comes back to his flat and finds the spy dead, and then he's sure the spy was right.  Thanks to some clues, Hannay heads to Scotland with the evol Germans and the police both on his trail.

This is a great, very quick (if you're not writing a gazillion papers *cough*), entertaining read.  The political machinations and assassination plot are utterly nonsensical, but it doesn't matter in the least because that's the MacGuffin.  All one really cares about is following Hannay on his adventures through Scotland and watching as he outwits everyone.  It's easy to see why Hitchcock adapted this book to film twice--it's suspenseful, fast-paced, full of great landscape, and thoroughly enjoyable.

And Hannay is really the linchpin of the story--appropriately, since he is the narrator as well as the hero.  He's an outsider in the UK, coming from south Africa, but so incredibly smart and quick-thinking that one would probably never even notice.  Yet I think his status as an outsider is a major element of his character: it makes him a liminal figure, able to travel between poor cottages to wealthy drawing rooms with ease.  More than ease, actually--he doesn't seem in any way constrained by a sense of class or self-identity pertinent to the surroundings that would make him hesitate to take on a role or depend on someone's good grace. 

If you watched the PBS Masterpiece adaptation of this and enjoyed it, you have to read the book--it is soooo much better.  And to sweeten the deal, it's free from Project Gutenberg.

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