Written in 1915 by John Buchan, before he became Governor-General of Canada, The Thirty-Nine Steps is one of the first spy-thrillers ever written.
Set in the months leading up to WWI the book follows Richard Hannay, who has recently returned from an extended stay in Africa to London to lead the life of the wealthy, retired man-about-town but finds that he is bored by living in London and decides to set off travelling again. That is until his upstairs neighbour asks for his help as he is in fear for his life. The neighbours then tells Hannay a tale about anarchists and an upcoming assassination on the Greek Premier that is so unbelievable, it must be true! Hannay lets him stay for a few days until he comes home one night and finds that his new friend had the cheek to get himself stabbed in the back without even a note apologizing for the mess. Hannay then decides that he will he suspected for the murder, so he takes his friend's notebook and hopes the first train to a remote village in Scotland, where he plans to hide out among the hills and valleys until he can break the notebook's cypher. When he does decode the notes, he realizes that he must alert the government as it contains proof that military secrets are being smuggled out of the country with war just around the corner. The only problem is that the ring of anarchists and German spies has located him and is trying to kill him. Dashed unpleasant, what?
Despite there being very little humour in the book, it makes for quite a thrilling read and quick too (it's more of a novella, about 150 pages). It's very much a cross between the stiff upper lip and boy's own adventure story with very little attention paid to expanding on minor characters or describing anything beyond the basic requirements. But the descriptions of the Scottish countryside (we spend quite a lot of time outdoors) are very good, although too concise and Hannay isn't as well developed as other spies have been, but he still comes across as a likeable chap in a sticky situation. There are also some very good pointers as to how to come up with an undetectable disguise, in case you are ever trying to escape a bunch of murderers it will come in handy. If you have never read a lot, or any, of the thriller genre, then do read this book as you will understands the basics of it and it makes for an exciting evening in.
It has been filmed four times, and from what I understand, none of them are faithful to the novel, ie. there is no romance in it, unlike the films. So, watch the Hitchcock version which is a good film and does put you on the edge of your seat since it is Hitchcock. There is also a comedic play based on it and I would like to see it, but doubt that it shall ever been performed here. Has anyone seen it? What's it like?