The story of 'The thirty-nine steps' is set very precisely during a few weeks in May and June 1914, before the outbreak of the First World War. It is essentially a thriller with an element of political subterfuge.
The hero is Richard Hannay — fresh from Rhodesia, part of the British Empire. He accidentally gets caught up in a situation that exposes the vulnerability of the British state to plots against its security.
These themes, expertly woven together by Buchan, highlighted the talents which his experience in the Propaganda Department of the War Office suitably prepared him for.
book of the world wide war'.
Buchan holds up Richard Hannay as an example to his readers of an ordinary man who puts his country's interests before his own safety. Not surprisingly, the story was a hit with the soldiers stuck in the trenches of the First World War.
Buchan went on to write better novels — with and without Hannay — but the original tale of a man pursued by dark forces remains his most famous and has been hugely influential.
It was a paradox that in his professional and public life, Buchan was a stickler for the rules of the political system and Government, which in his novels he so often seems to parody.
He captured the right tone of Edwardian and inter-war English public life, along with its anxiety and accompanying complacency, its instinctive anti-Semitism and its male-dominant, public school culture.
Many of his novels are a pastiche of that culture and the preface to 'The thirty-nine steps' itself makes clear. Nevertheless, Buchan was subsequently blamed for elitism and anti-Semitism.
Breaking class barriers
'The thirty-nine steps'.
In some of his novels, Buchan romanticised the extent to which he felt the First World War broke down class barriers. In his essay on wartime and inter-war Britain, 'The King's grace, 1910-1935' which also celebrates the reign of George V, he expressed the belief that:
'The young man of the educated classes today is at home, as his father never would have been, in a Hull trawler, or working the soil with unemployed miners'.
Buchan maintained his popularity throughout the 20th century through the universal appeal of his tales. Local settings, scenery and the period charm of his plots and characters also underpinned this universal appeal.
However, while he was a popular author, this success wasn't reflected in literary recognition and he suffered from the same anti-imperial reaction as Rudyard Kipling. To later generations of readers with more liberal and modern values, the tone of Buchan's novel was shocking. More recently, however, interest in his work has been revived through literary criticism.
The strength of Buchan's work is drawn from his wide-ranging cultural and public experience, as well as from his sense that there is individual evil in society at large. His work anticipated and shaped many of the political thrillers we see today by writers like John Le Carré and Robert Harris.