December 01, 2023

#08-363: The Thirty-Nine Steps

Hannay crashes a meeting (Gutenberg)

Note: A thrilling movie, and an even more thrilling book, featuring one of the prototypes for James Bond.

Get Ready: Can the actions of one common man really affect the fate of nations? Can you think of examples?

James Bond may be the best-known fictional spy, but he wasn't the first. One famous precursor is Richard Hannay, protagonist of five novels and a side character in two more, by the Scottish novelist John Buchan. His first appearance was in the 1915 novel, The Thirty-Nine Steps. The first of many films (and radio and TV shows) based on it was made by Alfred Hitchcock in 1935, though like many such adaptations it deviated significantly from Buchan's original telling.

Unlike Bond, Hannay--like many "real spies"--is not a government official, but rather an ordinary man thrown into an extraordinary situation.

It's 1914. Richard Hannay has just returned to London from Rhodesia after making money as a mining engineer. A journalist neighbor knocks on his door seeking refuge, telling him he has uncovered a German plot to kill the Premier of Greece and provoke a war. Hannay hides the man in his apartment, but discovers him dead a few days later.

The police suspect Hannay for the murder, and he goes on the run from them and the real killers. He heads for a remote place in Scotland, taking along a coded notebook which the journalist had kept.

While running from good guys and bad guys, he deciphers the book, figuring out that a spy ring called the "Black Stone" is planning to steal British naval secrets. Hannay meets a local landowner, Sir Harry, who happens to be the godson of Sir Walter Bullivant, a high government officer. Sir Harry writes to his godfather to inform him of the plot.

Escaping his pursuers, Hannay enters a lonely cottage--only to find it's a nest of enemy spies! He convinces them he is someone else, but--still suspicious of him--they lock him in a storeroom. He uses some explosives he finds there to escape again, blowing out a window. He heads for the home of Sir Walter, and after some persuasion, convinces Sir Walter that the plot is real.

Sir Walter learns that, unfortunately, the Greek Premier is already dead. He takes Hannay with him to London, where Hannay drops in on a meeting at Sir Walter's and recognizes one of the spies in disguise. The man escapes, taking the naval secrets with him.

Hannay, Sir Walter, and others carefully re-examine the coded notebook, looking for clues as to how the spies will cross the English Channel back to Germany. There they read, "Thirty-nine steps--I counted them--High tide, 10:17 p.m."

They find a clifftop villa with private steps down to a beach--39 of them, to be exact--where a yacht waits offshore. Hannay confronts the occupants of the villa, at first thinking it's just an ordinary group of English friends. But then he recognizes the spy from before, blows his whistle, and the authorities arrest the lot.

England is saved! But the country nevertheless enters World War I seven weeks later, and Hannay is made an army captain.

Practice: Match the term to its definition:

Term Definition
  1. deciphers
  2. godfather
  3. offshore
  4. precursor
  5. Premier
  6. provoke
  7. refuge
  8. the authorities
  9. the lot
  10. yacht
  1. something which leads to something else
  2. push (into action)
  3. away from the land
  4. breaks a code
  5. an honorary relative
  6. a safe place
  7. all of something
  8. a head of government
  9. a small, expensive boat
  10. government law enforcement; police, etc.

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for December 1, 2023

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. d; 2. e; 3. c; 4. a; 5. h; 6. b; 7. f; 8. j; 9. g; 10. i