What is the ultimate homage one can pay to an author?
Surely it is to say that his or her work, when viewed through the lens of time, has lost some of its impact on the modern audience because it has become a genre-defining cliche – done and redone by copycats, some very talented, until the novelty fades. This kind of ‘victimhood of one’s own success’ can be said of the great Alfred Hitchcock. It can be said of the classic hip hop group Public Enemy.
And it can be said of John Buchan’s ‘The 39 Steps’. For the contemporary reader whose appetite for vicarious thrills has been fattened on the fast food of Jack Reacher, Jason Bourne, Jack Bauer – not to mention James Bond, the antics of Richard Hannay come across as a little hammy.
For one thing, his protagonist (Richard Hannay) has a first name which doesn’t begin with J. And then, many of the plot devices – the just-in-time escapes, the ‘ordinary man antihero’, the ratcheting up of the stakes as the plot reveals – all seem rather tired. That is, until you remember that Buchan’s character was penned in 1915, at a time when writing of this kind was largely non-existant. Richard Hannay was escaping from exploding buildings long before John McClane was even Born Hard, never mind the ‘Die’ bit.
Regarding the plot of this book itself, I won’t say too much, except to note the extent to which it is pregnant with the zeitgeist of a powerful Britain, caught in the midst of the Great War. The villification of the Germans and the rabid jingoism of the Empire are anacharonisms, which, when viewed in the tail lights of the muddy, blood-soaked trenches and sour colonial legacy of racist Western powers, retain appeal only insofar as they provide us with historical context.
Buchan called his books ‘shockers’, which in itself sounds silly and antiquated, until you think a little on the word ‘thriller’ and realise it’s actually no less silly-sounding. As a politician and a well-known biographer, he considered his shockers among the least important of his accomplishments. And yet even in his own lifetime it was clear that this is what he would be remembered for.
I give ‘The 39 Steps’ three stars for the story in its own right, and an additional star in recognition of the many Johns, Jacks, James’ and Jasons who followed in Richard Hannay’s wake.