The Thirty Nine Steps, by John Buchan

September 27, 2011 at 12:44 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Fiction, Mediocre Books, Mystery, Thriller) (, , , )

6/10

The Thirty Nine Steps is a strange mixture of a story that seems never to quite live up to the promises it makes.  After the heartbreakingly numb first page, a thrilling adventure opens up, with some truly excellent exposition that is ambitious in scope, has a promising ring of realism to it, and is boldly fantastical.  The whole evasion part of the story, the first (and most of the second) act, is as quick and self assured as any modern spy or adventure story, and although the adrenaline of action tapers off fairly swiftly, it leaves a constant thrumming edge of danger and suspense rarely seen in even the best thrillers.

“‘Pardon,’ he said. ‘I’m a bit rattled tonight. You see, I happen at this moment to be dead.’
I sat down in an armchair and lit my pipe.
‘What does it feel like?'”

-The Thirty Nine Steps

The adventure in the Germans’ house is well-written, but it proves to be a high water mark that is retreated from suddenly and jarringly.  After the initial horror of the man with the hawk’s eyes, the protagonist’s every challenge is quickly and easily solved, and the anticlimax does a lot to mask the competent and touching skill of the author, and his description of the gentler aspects of highland life.  In terms of plot, from the unlikely coincidence of the hero stumbling accidentally into the villains’ chief lair, he then suffers unlikely accident after unlikely accident, meeting in thirty pages or so by utter coincidence everyone he needs to regain the trust of the law and to solve the whole plot.  Needless to say the denouement occurs in just such a haphazard and fortuitous way, and the story ends abruptly, almost as if the author had suddenly tired on a whim of the bloodiness of his tale, and sought for the nearest exit.  Read this book for the first half of it, and imagine what it might have been.

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