Richard Hannay is fed up. He has just returned to London after several years in South Africa, where he’s led an adventurous life and made a modest fortune. His current life of leisure in England seems incredibly dull by comparison — that is, until his neighbor knocks on his door one day with an amazing story about international conspiracies, assassination plots, and his own very important mission. Hannay isn’t sure what to make of the story at first but agrees to keep his neighbor’s secret. When the man is murdered shortly thereafter, Hannay concludes that his farfetched story must actually be true, and he decides to take over the dead man’s mission to deliver some secret documents to a highly important member of the British government. He immediately finds himself on the run, as the people who murdered his neighbor are now on his trail. Hannay encounters a variety of people on his journey, both friend and foe, and he relies on his instincts to tell him whom he can trust with his story. In some cases these instincts are right, while in others, they are very, very wrong. But somehow, he always manages to stay one step ahead of his pursuers as he searches for the mysterious location with the 39 steps, where the evildoers can all be captured in one fell swoop.
This is one of those books that’s fun to read as a historical artifact, but I feel like it would never be published today. Spy thrillers are so popular in book, TV, and movie formats that audiences have become very sophisticated. The plot of this book may have been cutting-edge when it was published in 1915, but for a modern reader, it’s pretty predictable and really strains credulity at times. Hannay’s actual mission isn’t important; the dramatic tension in the book comes from the fact that he’s being followed, as well as the fact that some pursuers are actually lying in wait for him. There is one pretty suspenseful scene near the end where Hannay is in a room with the suspected evildoers, and he’s suddenly struck with self-doubt: are these people actually the bad guys, or has he been imagining the whole thing? But I did mentally roll my eyes at Hannay several times, as he basically blurts out the entire story to everyone he meets without once stopping to wonder, “Should I actually trust this person?” Still, despite its flaws, I did find the book entertaining and would consider reading more of Hannay’s adventures. I also need to check out the Hitchcock movie now!