The 39 Steps by John Buchan

I’ve been meaning to read this book for ages, mainly because John Buchan was a local lad, having been brought up in Fife. His father was a Free Church of Scotland minister in Kirkcaldy.

The book was first published in 1915. Buchan had been ill and had run out of reading material so decided to entertain himself by writing the sort of book which he enjoyed reading.

His main character Richard Hannay finds himself on the run from the police and whoever had murdered his neighbour who had been hiding in Hannay’s London flat.

The murder victim had warned Hannay of an assassination plot which could bring the country to the brink of war.

Hannay makes for his native Scotland with both the police and the murderers hot on his tracks. Travelling all over the country he is helped by various inhabitants but still finds himself in sticky situations.

I enjoyed reading this classic adventure book and will read the sequel Greenmantle too. Good bedtime reading, I think.

The local legend is that Buchan named the book after the 39 steps leading down to the beach at the side of Ravenscraig Castle in Kirkcaldy. Here is a photo of the steps. (There are actually more than 40. We counted.)

The 44 Steps

But like every other coastal place there are plenty of steps to choose from leading down to various parts of the beach.

The book was made into a film by Alfred Hitchcock in 1935, but the film is completely different from the book. The most memorable part of the film doesn’t even appear in the book – when Hannay is scrabbling about on the Forth Bridge. But who could blame Hitchcock for changing things, the bridge is a gift for a thriller.

Hitchcock definitely improved the storyline thriller-wise as the Forth Bridge is such a wonderful iconic structure that it seems a huge gaffe on Buchan’s part not to include it in the book. The bridge also featured in the 1959 film starring Kenneth More. Maybe Buchan was just a bit blasé about the bridge – as you tend to be if something is in your own back yard.

I reviewed this book as part of the Thriller and Suspense Reading Challenge.

13 thoughts on “The 39 Steps by John Buchan

    • Judith Wilson,
      I think you might be right. I was along there a few days ago and there must be getting on for 39 steps there. I had forgotten about those steps until then.
      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

        • Donald,
          Interesting. I read somewhere that there’s a place in England claiming to be the place that gave Buchan the idea – unlikely I’m sure. Maybe 39 sounded better than 41 to him!

      • If youve ever been right at the side of the castle there used to be steps going down to the beach (i used to climb up it when i was wee) like attached to the castle but its mainly just a grassy hill now, as it says ravens craig castle in the post

        • Danielle,
          I remember those steps but I haven’t been there for years. I know that other places claim to be the original 39 Steps but I think as Buchan grew up really close to Ravenscraig he must at least have been inspired by those steps.
          Thanks for dropping by and taking the time to comment.

    • There are 39 steps in Fish Wynd, which leads from St. Mary’s Road down to the Harbour..maybe a wee bit of artistic license?

  1. even better (?) there are 38/39 steps from the harbour at Dysart (next to the house) and up to the road – well, that is to a harbour departure point for the German spies!

    • Iain Burt,
      I had read that local steps were his inspiration but I thought it was the steps near Pathhead, but I’ve counted those ones and there are too many. It must be the Dysart ones then, I’ve read that he based it on steps near where he lived in England at one point, but of course that’s completely unlikely! It’s a pity that there’s nothing local that Buchan/O.Douglas fans could go and visit. Thanks for dropping by and taking the time to comment.


  2. I live in nearby Buckhaven and although I’ve turned over this story of the Steps near Pathead, Buchan’s son has stated that his young sister when learning to count, counted stairs near a convalescing home where Buchan was in residence at Broadstairs and proudly told her father “There were 39 Steps”. It turned out there were in fact 78 steps. Buchan halved the number to 39 as it served a better title.

    • Mark Trayner,
      That’s interesting, I had heard that the steps were possibly somewhere in England near where he had lived, so presumably it was Broadstairs.
      Thanks for dropping by and taking the time to comment.

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