The Thirty Nine Steps is one of the most familiar books of the twentieth century. I first came across it as a set book in English classes at school. But it has also had several film and television versions. It is in a way quite sobering to realise that it is now very nearly a hundred years old. It has now not just a thumping good yarn but also a glimpse into a long vanished world.
Rereading it I was struck by lots of details that went completely over my head when I read it as a teenager in the seventies. First of all is the chief character, Richard Hannay. “I had made my pile as a mining engineer in Bulawayo. Not one of the big ones, but big enough for me” he explains early on so we know why a 37 year old has the time and resources for his adventures. He’s a self made man. We learn later that he gets on well with folk in the upper echelons of society and with the common man too. He is intelligent but mainly a man of action. He speaks German we learn, but not French. He is an adept big game hunter and has also done a bit of fighting in the Matabele wars. (Were they real or made up? I must check.)
Hannay is patriotic and well informed but doesn’t seem to have any interest in politics beyond foreign affairs. He’s clueless about free trade. I think you could just about make out a case for saying he is a Conservative, but Liberals are portrayed as basically decent people in the book and play a key role in helping him save the day. The basic message of the book is that Germany is a threat to Great Britain. It was written in 1912 so this was prescient but hardly a revelation. Hannay, and I guess the book’s author, was able to travel the length of the country and meet all manner of folk without feeling the need to mention suffragettes or the newly founded labour movement. Not only are women’s issues not referred to, there are precious few women in the book at all.
Contemporary social issues may get short shrift but the latest technology is pressed into the service of the plot. Aeroplanes are at the service of the villains. The police are able mount a nationwide search using phones and wires. The newspapers make the murder in Hannay’s flat that trigger off the yarn a national story even in the remote Scottish highlands. The casual way in which our here at one stage makes his getaway in a motor car he has just stolen makes you forget that these were quite an innovation.
You can’t really fault this book as an adventure story. You keep turning the pages and it builds up to a great climax. It is easy to see why it has been adapted for the screen so often. Reading it also gives you the feel of what it must have been like to live in the rapidly modernising world just before the huge changes brought about by the First World War. You’ll have to look elsewhere if you are interested in politics though.