In Which a Story Cures Boredom: John Buchan & the Novel
by Shannon Hurst
The spy thriller is an inescapable staple of both film and literature so entrenched in our national consciousness that it may hardly seem plausible the genre has existed for only a century. Indeed, even the vast expanse of the James Bond universe, for instance, traces back to a singular story from 1915 called The Thirty-Nine Steps. The short thriller (or “shocker” as this type of story was first known) was penned under a pseudonym of British war correspondent and propagandist John Buchan who, bedridden by an ailment and unable to engage in the war, turned to writing an adventure story to cure his boredom.
First printed in a now-defunct British publication of adventure stories for young men called Blackwood’s Magazine, Buchan’s story chronicled the exploits and misadventures of Richard Hannay, an unconventional character for contemporary literature of the time. Hannay is an everyman, discontent with life, who is thrown unwittingly into a world of espionage and covert government efforts. Rather than his fictional counterparts, he acts independently through his own resourcefulness and ingenuity than within the confines of any political or aristocratic system. Both the magazine story and subsequent novel achieved monumental success – even now, as the novel has never gone out of print – which could be attributed in part to its relatable protagonist being hurled into such a thrilling adventure, and in part because of the particularly topical relevancy to its early twentieth-century readers.
The Thirty-Nine Steps plays heavily on the robust patriotism and xenophobia of a country in the midst of the First World War. Not only could its readers relate to Hannay, they could relate to the events depicted in the story, or at least find them plausible. Buchan’s readers to this point had engaged with this type of literature, known as Invasion Literature, for decades as it played on British anxieties of possible intrusion and destruction. The country’s nervous and fearful sensibilities would continue through to the Second World War, when a new generation of Britons would find continued relevancy in the story of Richard Hannay and The Thirty-Nine Steps.