Review: The Thirty-Nine Steps, by John Buchan

John Buchan was, according to Christopher Hitchens, “the father of the modern spy thriller”. But, as the introduction to this, his most famous novel, explains, he was a writer “of his time”. That’s code for “bigoted”.

In a famous passage in this novel — the conspiracy theory par excellence — a leading character tells the book’s hero that “if you’re on the biggest kind of job and are bound to get to the real boss, ten to one you are brought up against a little white-faced Jew in a bath-chair with an eye like a rattlesnake. Yes, sir, he is the man ruling the world just now …”

Stuart Kelly’s introduction dismisses this as the ranting of a character which will be dismissed later in the book, but the narrator himself has throw-away lines like “when a Jew shoots himself in the City and there is an inquest, the newspapers usually report that the deceased was ‘well-nourished’.”

It may well have been the basis of a classic Hitchcock film, but this 1915 novel has little by way of plot (basically, the hero is running away from villains, escaping them by a combination of his own brilliance at disguise, and dumb luck). Not convincing, not interesting, and “of its time” in the very worst sense of the word.