The Thirty Nine Steps Summary

John Buchan

The Thirty Nine Steps

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The Thirty Nine Steps Summary

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The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), by Scottish author John Buchan,is an espionage thriller and the first of five of Buchan’s novels to feature the character Richard Hannay. Buchan’s novel takes readers on a breathtaking series of exciting exploits featuring German villains that take place in May and June of 1914. The Thirty-Nine Steps has been adapted for film and TV including Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film.

Told in the first-person, The Thirty-Nine Steps draws the reader into the mind of Richard Hannay, an expatriate Scot who,  after living in the British colony of Rhodesia in Africa, is now is in London.

From the outside, Richard is a patriotic man putting the interests of his country ahead of his own safety. He is brave, daring, and calm under pressure. He is skilled at becoming another person by changing his accent or donning a disguise. His character is a combination of Sherlock Holmes and James Bond. Despite his stiff upper lip, the first-person perspective allows us to see his doubts and fears as he resourcefully escapes from danger.

Richard Hannay gets thrown into an international drama. He receives a frantic visit from a stranger, an American named Franklin P. Scudder. Scudder tells him of a plot by the Germans to assassinate the Greek Premier, Constantine Karolides, during an upcoming visit to London. Scudder, who is a freelance spy, writes all the details of the plot in code in a black notebook. Scudder asks to hide in Richard’s apartment.

Four days later Richard has to run for his life. He returns home to find his apartment has been ransacked and Scudder’s body—he has been stabbed to death—planted there. Richard, who realizes he looks guilty, is forced to go on the lam to escape both the police and the people who killed Scudder. He also feels obliged to prevent the Greek Premier’s assassination.

To escape unnoticed by the German spies watching his apartment building, Richard borrows his milkman’s uniform and flees to Galloway, in Scotland. He travels by train and takes Scudder’s black book with him.

In Galloway, Richard learns that the police are after him while reading the morning newspaper. He travels east on a train and spends the night at an inn. At the inn, Richard manages to decipher Scudder’s code. By reading the notebook, Richard learns that the group of anarchists threatening the Greek Premier is known as the Black Stone. Scudder’s notes also mention 39 steps, which Richard finds mysterious. Black Stone wants to start a Europe-wide war and plan to steal naval intelligence from the British to start a naval blockade around the United Kingdom. The innkeeper, who knows Richard’s story, sends the police away when they come looking for Richard. When the police return yet again, Richard is able to escape in their car.

By clinging onto a branch, Richard manages to survive when he crashes the car into a ravine. The man, Sir Harry, whose car Richard was trying to avoid, offers to take Richard to his home. Sir Harry is a local politician and after Richard tells him his story, he agrees to help Richard. Sir Harry writes a letter of introduction for Richard to Sir Walter Bullivant, his relative who works in the Foreign Office.

While trying to escape his pursuers, Richard hides in a remote cottage occupied by an old archeologist. Unfortunately, the old man is a member of Black Stone and he locks Richard in a storage room. Richard escapes by using explosives stored in the room to blast his way out.

Richard scrambles to London to tell Sir Walter Bullivant the whole plot. The two men learn that they were too late. The assassination of the Greek Premier happened a few hours earlier. Sir Bullivant invites Richard to attend an important meeting about military intelligence.

Richard saves the day during the meeting. First, he deduces that British Sea Lord Alloa, one of the attendees, is a traitor after recognizing him as one of his pursuers. He alerts Sir Bullivant immediately after the meeting.

Next, Richard remembers that Scudder’s notes mention high tide at 10:17 pm and 39 steps. If the group can figure out the location these clues refer to, he guesses that they will find members of Black Stone. With the help of the coastguard, they discover a private beach near a house, Trafalgar Lodge, which has exactly 39 steps leading to the beach. In the house, Richard finds three men who appear to be middle-class British citizens but discovers that they are actually German spies.

In the novel’s brief epilogue, we learn that Richard Hannay later joined the British Army.

Scotsman John Buchan (1875-1940) led a varied career as a novelist, lawyer, politician, diplomat, and historian. He died in Canada while serving as the Governor General of Canada. His novel, The Thirty-Nine Steps, is considered one of the first in the genre of a ‘man-on-the-run’ thriller.