39“I returned from the City about three o’clock on that May afternoon pretty well disgusted with life.”

Books are my primary passion and, for me, the best method of telling a story. I prefer to be reading over doing practically anything else – the possible exceptions being drinking and writing. However, while I have little interest in films, I am deeply enamoured with the theatre. Musicals, mostly, but I do love a good play as well. There’s something – as has been said before and better by many others – about the immediacy of the theatre that makes it such a compelling form of entertainment. I love the spectacle, the magic that people are capable of doing on stage, and the strength of the performers who shine brightly and never seem to slip up in their performance.

I bring this up because before reading The Thirty-Nine Steps, I had seen the play. The two are, without question, almost entirely different beasts. Both feature a British hero called Richard Hannay who is framed for murder, and both feature him going on the run. Other than that, they have very little in common.

The book takes place in 1914, just mere weeks before the outbreak of the First World War. Richard Hannay is a typically upper-class English fellow who has just returned to the country and is bored. However, he soon finds himself dealing with a man called Scudder. This man has faked his own death and requires hiding in Hannay’s apartment. He supposedly knows things about high-up policians in Europe and has information that is top secret. Hannay takes him in, only to find one evening that Scudder has been killed, pinned to the floor with a knife.

Realising that he is the prime suspect, Hannay goes on the run, while the police instigate a nationwide manhunt. Hannay holes up in a Scottish inn, where he can start looking over Scudder’s notes. The danger is real and the notebook mentions something about thirty-nine steps … but what are they, and can Hannay stop the information from falling into the wrong hands before it’s too late?

Hannay is something of a cartoon character in an otherwise serious novel. He falls into various scrapes but generally comes out unharmed, always happening upon the one person in the area who doesn’t wish to turn him into the police and will aide his disapperance. Hannay displays an uncanny knack for disguise, taking advice from an old friend that if you want to look like someone else, you have to believe you are someone else. The book has great fun in discussing the notion that hair dye and growing a beard actually does less to disguise you than simply holding yourself differently and looking like you belong wherever you are.

It’s a quick romp, over in a couple of hours, but it’s fun and fast. Hannay more than makes up for the lack of characterisation on most of the other people he encounters, and you root for him to come good against the hidden evils that always seem to be just around the corner.

The play, by contrast, is a comedy, something that this novel cannot claim to be. It changes the meaning of the term “thirty-nine steps”, rewrites most of the plot and most strikingly of all, has only four actors playing over one hundred roles. It is absolutely one of the greatest things I have ever seen and I cannot recommend it higher. It’s done with broad humour, fun and still tells a smart story.

This book is good but, if I were you, I’d go and see the play instead.

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