I have to be clear that I’m not going to be talking about the film here, instead I’m talking about the book by John Buchan on which it was based. I finished reading it about a week ago and felt bitterly disappointed.
The story goes that Mr. Hannay lets in a lodger, Scudder, who is violently killed a short time later, leaving behind a story involving a conspiracy to assassinate a political figure, Karolides, and a book containing a seemingly indecipherable code. Hannay realises he will be the prime suspect for Scudder’s murder and so goes on the run from the law, fleeing to Scotland where he meets a variety of unusual characters who are either useless or very helpful. Eventually he will make it back to England and solve the mystery of the 39 Steps before te 15th of June, when he has been told a devious masterplan will come to fruition.
I didn’t have any problems with the book until about Chapter 8 – before that point it was thrilling, you didn’t quite know what was going to happen next and there were enough chases, intrigue and character-building to keep anyone happy. I have to say that I don’t usually read books like The 39 Steps and don’t feel that a book has to have a lot of action in it to be great – this just happened to be one of those books!
I felt let down by the book when you learned the “mysterious secret” of the 39 steps. I thought the secret was going to be really deep and it would have some sort of plan involved (e.g. the 39 steps to successfully assassinate a political figure). Instead I got a really flat, tedious outcome to what the 39 steps were. Okay, so the climax of the book is less about the steps and more about the people involved with them (will get to that in a minute) and I realise that there’s some sort of metaphorical meaning to the number of steps (i.e. 39, as in the year 1939 when the war broke out). Still, it was built up so much by the plot of the book that it all ended up being a bit flat.
The main part of the climax focused on the characters involved in a mysterious masterplan to be completed on June 15th. Predictably, these characters are German, and even more predictably, you know that Hannay and his friends (i.e. the good guys) have to win. But you know all along that he will – it’s not really giving anything away since every protagonist in this sort of book has to win eventually right?
It was really too bad that this book didn’t have the more explosive (or at least more dramatic) ending that the first 8 chapters really deserved – you know that a book has fallen a bit short of the mark when at one point there’s a massive explosion, a few violent deaths but in the end the bad guys are caught because of the appearance of someone’s eyebrows!