Buchan, John. The Thirty-Nine Steps.
Edinburgh,: William Blackwood and Sons., 1915.
First edition. 8vo. 253pp. + 2pp ads. In a lovely recent bottle green oasis morocco binding by Bayntun-Riviere, titled and ruled in gilt to the spine, gilt ruling to boards, all edges gleaming gilt. Marbled endpapers. Internally clean, with original blue boards bound in at the rear.
A courageous and handsome copy of one of the most important bits of early 20th century crime and espionage fiction (I include Rogue Male, and the Riddle of The Sands in this sweeping statement), and the book that announced the arrival of the archetypal British hero in his guise of “bluff, unpretentious chap caught in the wrong place at the wrong time by the wrong set of villains has to take to his heels and put his ingenuity and pluck to the test” (that's a pretty good summary, but I can't see Waterstones putting it on a shelf label); Richard Hannay, based in part upon a real spy, Edmund Ironside, who distinguished himself during the Boer War. One of the interesting (not the right word, but the it'll do for now) aspects of much of the colonially inclined fiction of the time is that it illustrates perfectly the tunnel vision necessary, and encouraged, to build an empire. Hannay is a mining engineer, late of South Africa, who in the manner of adventurers of the time blithely popped off to seek his fortune in a place that most definitely didn't want him there. Hardly any of this swathe of fiction would be possible without the complete lack of introspection and empathy that makes it possible to view trespass as free enterprise, and imposition as improvement. Hannay is a good man, doing good (generally across the 5 titles, not solely in 39 Steps), keeping to strict moral code; he would never cheat, or lay violent hands on a woman or child, or abandon someone in need, and would chuck himself in front of a Maxim for the sake of King and Country. He, and Allan Quatermain, and Harry Faversham, and Sanders and their cohorts are, in the main, decent chaps feeling (and thus echoing) the quite genuine belief that they are doing the best they can for the people they are governing, leading or even fighting, and for the civilisation they unironically hold up as the societal blueprint which all others should follow. Everything they do, however, ends up being detrimental to that society, albeit one hundred and odd years down the line, and detrimental to the society they are squatting on top of right there and then. They become bad men. It's frustrating that we can apply this understanding as a critical academic lens, and nod sagely, but we can't do it in any other arena. I'm clearly spending too much time on my own reading Late-Victorian popular fiction (by men, anyway), and it's all beginning to blur into one, don't get me started on Captain Cain...Anyway, good book, exciting, important on many levels, influential...