I snapped the switch, but there was nobody there. Then I saw something in the far corner which made me drop my cigar and fall into a cold sweat.
My guest was lying sprawled on his back. There was a long knife through his heart which skewered him to the floor.
I'm in the middle of moving house at the moment, so this will be a short-ish post (well, I can dream) about a short book: The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), by Scottish author (and spy) John Buchan (1875-1940). An episodic but pacey espionage thriller, The Thirty-Nine Steps has been adapted for the big screen three times (in 1935 - by Alfred Hitchcock - 1959 and 1978).
It isn't difficult to see what attracted Hitch to the story, quite apart from the fact that at one stage the protagonist is chased across a remote open landscape by a low-flying aeroplane: on one level, it is a classic tale of the everyman in way over his head, forced to go on the run from mysterious bad guys for the simple fact of have once been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
It begins in May 1914, with war on the horizon. One evening, our narrator, Richard Hannay - a Scotsman visiting Britain after a prolonged stay in South Africa - allows an American named Scudder to hide in his lodgings. Scudder claims to be in fear for his life because he has uncovered a plot that aims to destabilise the Balkans, by assassinating a Greek politican during a state visit to the UK. This, from his recounting to Hannay, gives both a taste of that exotic espionage flavour we might expect from such a novel (which is hardly delivered, presumably intentionally; Hannay spends most of the novel running around Scotland), and foreshadows the tactics Hannay himself will have to adopt later in the story:
"I reached this city by a mighty queer circuit. I left Paris a dandified young French-American, and I sailed from Hamburg a Jew diamond merchant. In Norway I was an English student of Ibsen collecting material for lectures, but when I left Bergen I was a cinema-man with special ski films. And I came here from Leith with a lot of pulp-wood propositions in my pocket to put before the London newspapers. Till yesterday I thought I had muddled my trail some..."
Hannay is, if not wholly convinced by this colourful narrative, willing to put Scudder up for the sake of some much-desired vicarious excitement (the homeland not having proved as fun as he'd hoped; shortly before, he reflects, "I had just about settled to clear out and get back to the veld, for I was the best bored man in the United Kingdom."). Things soon get a lot less vicarious, however, when he returns home one evening to find Scudder dead - in the chapter-ending cliffhanger that I quoted at the top of this post. Hannay soon realises he's next:
I was in the soup - that was pretty clear. Any shadow of a doubt I might have had about the truth of Scudder's tale was now gone. The proof of it was lying under the tablecloth. The men who knew that he knew what he knew had found him, and had taken the best way to make certain of his silence. Yes; but he had been in my rooms four days, and his enemies must have reckoned that he had confided in me. So I would be the next to go. It might be that very night, or the next day, or the day after, but my number was up all right.
Nor firmly convinced, and determined to Do His Bit besides ("Scudder [...] was gone, but he had taken me into his confidence, and I was pretty well bound to carry on his work"), Hannay naturally opts not to inform the police or get back up of any sort - there are certain genre conventions to obey, after all - but immediately goes on the run himself, aware that in doing so he will make himself the prime suspect for Scudder's murder. With a focused quickwittedness that is initially surprising, and is never wholly explained or examined, Hannay bribes a milkman to let him borrow his uniform. Changing demeanour and clothing together, Hannay escapes his lodgings and eludes pursuit, taking a train up to Scotland.
He also bids farewell to Scudder in an endearingly stiff-upper-lip way:
I lifted the cloth from the body and was amazed at the peace and dignity of the dead face. "Good-bye, old chap," I said; "I am going to do my best for you. Wish me well, wherever you are."
Once in Scotland, he has a series of adventures, these being mostly self-contained episodes following a similar format each time: Hannay reaches a place, briefly relaxes in the company of whatever local Scottish colour is to hand, then is spotted by his pursuers or betrayed by his protectors, swiftly formulates a disguise, and flees once more. But while it may be formulaic, Buchan brings each episode to entertaining life with his skill for set-pieces and for sketching minor character types (alas, he is not so successful with Hannay, who remains fairly blank). And there is a tense atmosphere running most of the way through this short novel:
I was in a wide semicircle of moorland, with the brown river as radius, and the high hills forming the northern circumference. There was not a sign or sound of a human being, only the plashing water and the interminable crying of curlews. Yet, oddly enough, for the first time I felt the terror of the hunted on me. It was not the police that I thought of, but the other folk, who knew that I knew Scudder's secret and could not let me live. [...]
I looked back, but there was nothing in the landscape. The sun glinted on the metals of the line and the wet stones in the stream, and you could not have found a more peaceful sight in the world. Nevertheless I started to run. Crouching low in the runnels of the bog, I ran till the sweat blinded my eyes.
Much of the tension, as may be seen here, seems to exist in the protagonist's state of mind, until it is easy to wonder whether Hannay is fleeing because of the pursuit, or being pursued because of his (often quite suspicious-looking) flight. This, it turns out, is precisely the point. The reader is cast in the role of the authorities who could not possibly believe Hannay's wild story, until it - or a version of it - turns out to be true: that there is a covert German mission to steal secrets that will compromise the British fleet on the eve of war (the agents plan to escape via ship from a place on the coast of Kent, where thirty-nine steps carved into the cliff-face lead down to sea level). This is where things becomes interesting for a different reason.
For The Thirty-Nine Steps is very much a product of its time* and its author's concerns. Buchan himself was a spy: by the end of the war he was a prominent government spymaster and propagandist for the Ministry of Information, and it is almost certain that he was already working for British intelligence at the time of writing The Thirty-Nine Steps. It becomes increasingly apparent as the novel goes that Hannay is not an everyman but a Cassandra - someone with obvious, if unstated, operational field training and with an almost prophetic insight into the conspiracy he seeks to prevent.
[* Not least, I should point out, a certain casual anti-Semitism on display. Scudder initially claims that the plot is an international Jewish conspiracy: "'The Jew is everywhere [...] Yes, sir, he is the man who is ruling the world just now'". Even though this does turn out to be a red herring, it clearly partakes of the attitudes of the day, and Hannay finds it eminently plausible.]
When Hannay finally does manage to convince the sceptical powers-that-be of the threat, heavy (verging on comic) elements of wish-fulfilment take over the narrative, as all concerned surrender control of the investigation into this unknown's hands:
It was ridiculous in me to take charge of the business like this, but they didn't seem to mind, and after all I had been in the show from the start. Besides, I was used to rough jobs, and these eminent gentlemen were too clever not to see it. It was General Royer who gave me my commission. "I for one," he said, "am content to leave the matter in Mr Hannay's hands."
Hannay, of course, saves the day - after almost himself falling into the same trap as the reader, when the German agents' disguise proves to be so good that they cause him to doubt the whole story once again. And so the one man against the world becomes the one man who can do what is necessary to save his country, even if the entrenched people of power are unable to see it: face to face with the mysterious enemy at last, Hannay is able to gain a cathartic, immediate victory in a way that the War in real life could not supply.
In the end, Buchan's dedication on the title page gives us both the rationale and the context. The Thirty-Nine Steps is, he says:
that elementary type of tale which Americans call the 'dime novel' and which we know as the 'shocker' - the romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible. [...] [I] was driven to write one for myself. This little volume is the result [...] in the days when the wildest fictions are so much less improbable than the facts.