The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan: The Importance of the Impossible

If all literature were based upon plausibility and credibility, there would be no such thing as fiction. Imagination is a deterrent to objectivity. To expect a storyteller to tell facts alone is just as unreasonable as expecting a painter to paint precisely what he sees. Painting is not photography; neither is fiction a documentary. In the world of the photographer and documentarian, a Supreme Authority dictates the subject matter. In the world of the storyteller, the author is the supreme authority. The storyteller imitates the Creator by creating life, but not necessarily life as the Creator created it. This creative process involves personal experience, emotions, expressions, empathies, and the myriad other things that comprise an individual worldview. But the storyteller must be free to explore and share this worldview, whether his illustrations are in accord with the ways of the world or not. The storyteller must be granted freedom with one caveat—he must never be dull. The dullest things in the world are plausibility and credibility. The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan is not a dull book, because it is neither plausible nor credible.

John Buchan (1875-1940) was a connoisseur of the dime-novel spy-thriller—or “the shocker,” as he fondly classified it. This in itself is quite incredible given the man’s far from shocking history. The Scottish-born Buchan was educated at Oxford as a lawyer, and made a distinguished career as a publishing executive, historian, army officer, and MP. In 1935 he was made Baron of Tweedsmuir and appointed Governor General of Canada. Nothing about the public life of the Right Honourable Lord of Tweedsmuir may be called shocking. But there was a private streak about him that was—he was endowed with a shocking imagination. In 1915, as Buchan lay a-bed with an ulcer, he fashioned what would become the cast of a genre: The Thirty-Nine Steps.

Richard Hannay was not a spy. He was a young mining engineer back from South Africa looking for diversion in London and not finding any. Franklin P. Scudder was a spy. He had a knack for getting down to the roots of political secrets and finding more than he bargained for. As fate would have it, Scudder and Hannay then found each other. Scudder confided that he was on the run for his life having discovered a plot of international espionage and high-level assassination that threatened the future of England in the Great War that was brewing. Hannay agreed to hide him until the time came to act.

Through conversation with Scudder, Hannay picked up several details and clues pertaining to the conspiracy, and absolutely delighted in the danger of it all. But then the danger caught up to him. One evening, Hannay found Scudder pinned to the floor of his flat with a knife through the heart, and Hannay’s own leapt with terror. He was seized with the rushing realization that he was surely the next to die as the man who knew too much. At the same time, Hannay was seized with the determination to assume Scudder’s intelligence together with his enemies and do his utmost to play the spy himself and save his country—and perhaps even his life.

What follows is a breakneck race against all odds at a breathtaking pace. Hannay becomes the archetypal man-on-the-run with faceless foes of alarming power and precision directly on his tail. Narrowly escaping from tight spots, laying false tracks, falling in with friends and foes, always thinking one move ahead while always on the move, Hannay ducks and dodges his enemies’ clutches as he pieces together more and more of the scheme that overshadows Britain. As he goes, Hannay is constantly driven to don and doff disguises, becoming a milkman, a Free Trade radical, a dusty road-mender, a fashionable motorist, and a rustic Scottish cattle driver. These disguises not only involve assuming a costume, but assuming a character—a thorough becoming of his subject in order to avoid detection. This element of disguise, both physically and psychologically, is a theme pivotal to the suspension of belief and acceptance that nothing is impossible. The Thirty-Nine Steps invites—indeed requires—the reader to share the mental challenges of Richard Hannay as he plays part after part for his very life. Both Hannay and the reader must think themselves into their part, into their adventure, and live it without worrying about the plausibility of what is at hand for a split second. There is scarcely time for second thoughts in a cliffhanger, and The Thirty-Nine Steps never eases the tension until the final paragraph.

This psychological element is an aspect that raises The Thirty-Nine Steps a step above the typical dime novel. There are subtle horrors and nail-biting mind games at the heart of this story that are truly unnerving and disorienting. Men transform into maniacs before one’s very eyes, suddenly rendering the unthinkable the most obvious thing in the world. It is the understatement of highly dramatic ideas and nuances that made John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps such a strong influence on Alfred Hitchcock, who directed a retelling of the thriller in 1935.

The Thirty-Nine Steps is a delight because it attaches more importance to pure emotion and plot motion than to plausibility. It is the type of story that is immensely pleasing to the common consumer and immensely displeasing to the common critic. The storyline does not necessarily hold up well to analysis because reality loses its hold in the romance, where, as Buchan puts it, “the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible.” The critical mind tends to single out as flaws those very elements that are essential to enjoyment. On the other hand, when efforts are made by storytellers to make things as plausible as possible, flaws often arise. The best thing is to leave logic out of the game and maintain a purely casual approach to realism. The Thirty-Nine Steps is a true experience of the importance of the impossible.

There is a very real need to believe in the impossible these days—to believe in miracles, especially political miracles, where one man can overcome all odds and make a difference in the fate of a nation. The Thirty-Nine Steps engages and enacts this dream, and thereby serves to keep the hope alive that the impossible may, in fact, be possible. Such fantasies are important in these days when, as John Buchan wrote, “the wildest fictions are so much less improbable than the facts.”

Sean Fitzpatrick


Sean Fitzpatrick is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and the Headmaster of Gregory the Great Academy. He lives in Scranton, PA with his wife and family of four.

  • s;vbkr0boc,klos;

    One of the most beautiful shots in world cinema. The end of The 39
    Steps when Mr. Memory is dying, a flawlessly ‘stage lit’ line of chorus
    girls stretching in diminishing perspective behind him…the professor
    gasping out the ‘secret formula’ which is mathematical gibberish
    (granddaddy of all Hitchcock ‘red herrings’) and that bouncy upbeat
    cheery music hall music – loud and lush through it all. I’ve not read the book, but in the film the music hall (so beloved of Hitchcock and Fellini) was the plebeian ‘seed-bed’ of all that follows. Chesterton would have been at home there.

    • entonces_99

      Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” (one of my favorites) is really a remake of his “Thirty-Nine Steps.” By that time, however, there’s only the faintest resemblence to Buchan’s novel. (Hitchock, for example, raises a suggestion of moral equivalence between the two sides in the Cold War, which Buchan, who never wavers in his conviction of the righteousness of the Allied cause in World War I, would have abhorred.)

  • Christopher Check


    The great Robert Jackson, may he rest in peace, was the headmaster of the Heights, my old high school run by Opus Dei on Garrison Street in NW Washington D.C. since moved to Potomac, Maryland. Dr. Jackson put 39 STEPS on our summer reading list, and it has been a favorite of mine all these years. Buchan, as you know, was (among other things in his amazing carreer) a propagandist and war correspondent in the First World War. One of his letters to G.K. Chesterton describes the English soldiers in the trenches shouting G.K.’s LEPANTO to one another.

    The Hitchcock film (plot liberties aside) is superb and contains one of the most romantically charged scenes in film: Donat and Carroll awkwardly navigating their handcuffs. No flesh exposed at all.

    Thank you for calling to the attention of CRISIS readers this great book.

    Folks, you can’t find better summer reading than THE 39 STEPS.

    Peace and All Good,

    Christopher Check
    Catholic Answers

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  • David Rumback

    Have owned the book for years and never read it, but will move it to my “next reads” deck after your intriguing review. Thank you Sean Fitzpatrick. I agree with other posters about the great film version’s scenes re: handcuffs and the final, poignant death scene in the music hall. Another favorite sequence is Hannay’s impromptu political speech.

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