Step into the world of the 'shocker'
A book which inspired a famous Hitchcock film and may have been the fictional 'father' of James Bond is being celebrated on its centenary at the National Library of Scotland.
John Buchan's 'The thirty-nine steps' is a classic man-on-the-run adventure story which has spawned many film and radio adaptations and countless imitators. It has never been out of print since its first publication in 1915.
The story of how Buchan came to write his 'shocker' is told in a free display at the Library where visitors can see precious editions from the last 100 years, a typewritten script from the Hitchcock film and letters from Buchan to his publishers, among a range of supporting items.
The book, set in the days leading to the outbreak of the First World War, is about the chase to unmask German spies before they escape with Britain's military secrets. It was written as a distraction by Buchan as he was recovering from illness in 1914.
'While pinned to my bed during the first months of war and compelled to keep my mind off too tragic realities, I gave myself to stories of adventure,' he wrote later.
Buchan was an established writer of both fiction and non-fiction before he turned his hand to the escapist adventure story. 'The thirty-nine steps' was published first as a serial in the summer of 1915 in Blackwood's magazine under a pseudonym and in book form, under Buchan's name, in October. It proved to be an immediate success with 33,000 copies being sold in the first three months.
'Buchan went on to write better novels, but the original tale of a man on the run from dark forces remains his most famous and has been hugely influential,' said Andrew Martin, Curator for Literature and the Arts at the National Library, who has organised the display.
'It is said to have inspired Ian Fleming — the creator of James Bond — as well as Graham Greene and John le Carré. There have been three major films, countless radio and television productions and a comedy spoof based on the book has just finished its stage run on London's West End.'
The display seeks to set the fictional story in the Britain of the time by using contemporary documents. These include railway maps showing how the main character Richard Hannay would have made his way by train from London to Galloway in the south west of Scotland. Later, Hannay boards a train near Moffat and visitors can see a copy of 'Grieve's penny guide to Moffat' from 1904.
It also includes cigarette cards of the stars of the 1935 Hitchcock film, Madeleine Carroll and Robert Donat, together with the original film script. Hitchcock substantially re-wrote the story, introducing a female character and transferring some of the action to the photogenic Forth rail bridge in one of the most famous scenes from the film.
'Thriller writing has become big business but very few, if any, of today's books can ever hope to achieve the lasting appeal of 'The thirty-nine steps',' said Andrew Martin. 'It has captured the imagination of generations of readers and continues to do so today, a century after its first publication.'
'"The thirty-nine steps" — one hundred years on' runs from 10 September to 22 November at the National Library of Scotland, George IV Bridge, Edinburgh. Entry is free.
10 September 2015