The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan
The Thirty-Nine Steps
by John Buchan
UK pressbook edition for 1935 film starring Robert Donat

John Buchan is best known for his iconic novel The Thirty-Nine Steps. Frequently appearing in lists of the top 100 books of the 20th century, it is widely regarded as the starting point for espionage fiction and yet the novel was written to pass the time while Buchan recovered from illness.

The book’s hero, Richard Hannay, is on the run for most of the plot and this fast-moving adventure story has influenced countless thrillers since its publication in 1915. Buchan, winner of some notable literary prizes as an undergraduate at Oxford University, managed to fill his life with a variety of work – barrister, colonial administrator, publisher, Director of Intelligence, director of Reuters news agency, Member of Parliament and, finally, Governor-General of Canada as Lord Tweedsmuir.

Somehow he found time to write more than 25 novels, a number of short story collections, several major biographies, a 24-volume history of World War I and a host of other books, pamphlets, essays and magazine articles.

For many people the novels and short stories are the starting point for a collection. Richard Hannay was the principal character in four other fast-paced adventures – Greenmantle (1916), Mr Standfast (1919), The Three Hostages (1924) and The Island of Sheep, titled The Man from the Norlands in the US (1936).

Others may prefer the more thoughtful adventures in which Sir Edward Leithen, gentleman lawyer, appears. The Dancing Floor (1926) reaches a powerful climax in a pagan festival on a Greek island whilst Sick Heart River, called Mountain Meadow in the US, (1941) takes us to the Canadian Arctic where Leithen battles his last illness in an epic journey to find a lost businessman. Buchan died shortly before this novel was published and there are many autobiographical references in it.

In a lighter mood, Leithen also appears in the enduringly popular John Macnab (1925), a whimsical tale of the poaching exploits of three bored English gentlemen. In a similar light vein are the three Dickson McCunn novels – Huntingtower (1922), Castle Gay (1930) and The House of the Four Winds (1935) – which recount the unexpected adventures of a retired Glasgow provision merchant. Apart from these series he wrote over a dozen ‘one-off’ novels, many with a historical focus.

First editions of many Buchan novels from 1920 onwards are readily available at reasonable prices generally in the £10 to £20 range with earlier works more expensive. Pre-1900 novels and short stories such as Sir Quixote of the Moors (1895) and Grey Weather (1899) will generally sell for between £150 and £400 for sound, average copies.

John Buchan
John Buchan (1938)

With all titles, the inclusion of a dust jacket will substantially increase the price.  A first edition of The Thirty-Nine Steps complete with a dust jacket will run well into five figures. Another popular route into collecting Buchan’s fiction is through the attractive pocket-sized Nelson Uniform edition. These were available in either a bright red cloth binding or a dark green soft leather binding and look attractive as a run of books on a shelf. Most, but not all, of his fiction was published in this edition by Thomas Nelson & Sons.

A major influence on Buchan’s writing was World War I in which his brother Alastair and several of his close friends were killed. These for Remembrance (1919) is a poignant tribute to these men. The first edition is very rare as it was published privately in small numbers and given to the families of these men. However, a public edition was printed in 1987 and is more readily available.  As well as this book and his history of the Great War he wrote several other books relating to the conflict such as The History of the South African Forces in France (1920) and Francis and Riversdale Grenfell (1920).

The final major strand in Buchan’s output was his biographical work. These dealt with ancient historical figures such as Augustus (1937), great Scottish military commanders like Montrose (1928) and literary figures like Sir Walter Scott (1932).

In total the standard bibliography of his works lists 136 titles in his name, a truly remarkable output. This bibliography, by Robert Blanchard, is now very hard to find but a recent fully illustrated update by Kenneth Hillier and Michael Ross, The First Editions of John Buchan: A Collector’s Illustrated Bibliography is a useful guide for the serious collector.

Buchan is a writer with something to offer almost every taste in literature.  The John Buchan Society offers more information for those interested. Visit http://www.johnbuchansociety.co.uk.

Peter runs sms books – an online bookshop in Loughborough, UK, that specialises in John Buchan.

39 Books for a John Buchan Collection (Fiction)

Sir Quixote of the Moors (1895)
Sir Quixote of the Moors (1895)

Buchanís first published novel Ė an historical adventure.
The Half-Hearted (1900)
The Half-Hearted (1900)

An adventure novel that moves from Scotland to the Northwest Frontier.
The Watcher by the Threshold (1902)
The Watcher by the Threshold (1902)

Buchanís venture into the supernatural.
Prester John (1910)
Prester John (1910)

Adventure novel set in South Africa. Buchan worked there as a diplomat.
The Power House (1916)
The Power House (1916)

An anarchist organisation plans evil deeds. Edward Leithen is on the case.
Greenmantle (1916)
Greenmantle (1916)

Published by Hodder & Stoughton, Buchanís second Hannay novel.
Mr Standfast (1919)
Mr Standfast (1919)

Set during World War I, this is Buchanís third Hannay novel.
The Path of the King (1921)
The Path of the King (1921)

A collection of fictionalised accounts about real famous figures.
Huntingtower (1922)
Huntingtower (1922)

The first of Buchanís three Dickson McCunn books.
The Three Hostages (1924)
The Three Hostages (1924)

Fourth Hannay novel. Sinister forces at work in the peaceful British countryside.
The Dancing Floor (1926)
The Dancing Floor (1926)

Third Edward Leithen novel where the plot shifts to the Greek island of Plakos.
The Runagates Club (1928)
The Runagates Club (1928)

Collection of adventure tales with a guest appearance from Richard Hannay.
The Courts of the Morning (1929)
The Courts of the Morning (1929)

Adventure novel featuring Sandy Arbuthnot. Hannay narrates the prologue.
The Four Adventures of Richard Hannay (1930)
The Four Adventures of Richard Hannay (1930)

Omnibus edition of 39 Steps, Greenmantle, Mr. Standfast & Three Hostages.
Castle Gay (1930)
Castle Gay (1930)

Set in Scotland, the second of Buchanís Dickson McCunn books.
The Blanket of the Day (1931)
The Blanket of the Day (1931)

An historical novel set in the reign of Henry VIII.
The Gap in the Curtain (1932)
The Gap in the Curtain (1932)

Five people are allowed to see the future and itís not good for two of them.
The Magic Walking Stick (1932)
The Magic Walking Stick (1932)

A chance purchase sets a young boy on a series of magical adventures.
A Prince of Captivity (1933)
A Prince of Captivity (1933)

A man tries to redeem himself through brave adventures after false imprisonment.
The Free Fishers (1934)
The Free Fishers (1934)

Treason and romance Ė an historical adventure of a secret society.
The House of Four Winds (1935)
The House of Four Winds (1935)

Set in central Europe, the third and final Dickson McCunn book.
The Island of Sheep (1936)
The Island of Sheep (1936)

Final book featuring Hannay Ė the Island of Sheep is based on the Faroe Islands.
Sick Heart River (1941)
Sick Heart River (1941)

Terminally ill Leithen goes off to die in the Canadian wilderness.
The Long Traverse (1941)
The Long Traverse (1941)

Series of stories told by a native North American to a boy. Called Lake of Gold in the US.

39 Books for a John Buchan Collection (Non-Fiction)

Scholar Gypsies (1896)
Scholar Gypsies (1896)

Published when Buchan was just 21, a book about life around the River Tweed.
Sir Walter Raleigh (1897)
Sir Walter Raleigh (1897)

Buchanís biography of the great Elizabethan adventurer written for young readers.
The Battle of Jutland (1916)
The Battle of Jutland (1916)

Buchanís account of the most significant sea battle of World War I.
The Battle of the Somme First Phase (1916)
The Battle of the Somme First Phase (1916)

A detailed account of this brutal battle written and published very quickly.
A Book of Escapes and Hurried Journeys (1922)
A Book of Escapes and Hurried Journeys (1922)

A collection of real life escapes such as King Charlesí flight from Worcester.
The Last Secrets: The Final Mysteries of Exploration (1923)
The Last Secrets: The Final Mysteries of Exploration (1923)

An account of major explorations in the first 20 years of the 20th century.
Days to Remember: The British Empire and the Great War (1923)
Days to Remember: The British Empire and the Great War (1923)

Co-written with Henry Newbolt, who covered the sea battles.
Homilies and Recreations (1926)
Homilies and Recreations (1926)

Collection of essays on a variety of historical, political and literary matters.
Gordon at Khartoum (1932)
Gordon at Khartoum (1932)

An account of the disastrous events leading up to the death of General Gordon.
The Massacre at Glencoe (1933)
The Massacre at Glencoe (1933)

An account of how members of the MacDonald clan were murdered in 1692.
Oliver Cromwell (1934)
Oliver Cromwell (1934)

Buchanís biography of this key figure in British history.
The Kingís Grace (1935)
The Kingís Grace (1935)

Musings on the reign of King George V after 25 years on the throne.
Augustus (1937)
Augustus (1937)

An account of the Roman empire under this ruler.
Memory Hold-the-Door (1940)
Memory Hold-the-Door (1940)

His posthumously published autobiography, called Pilgrimís Way in the US.
Canadian Occasions by John Buchan
Canadian Occasions

Addresses given during 1935-1940 while Lord Tweedsmuir was Governor-General of Canada.

Five Most Expensive John Buchan Books Sold on AbeBooks

1. In Memorian W.H.B. - £885
A volume produced by the Buchan family in memory of John Buchan's younger brother William, who had died while on leave from Bengal. John Buchan contributes a 48-line poem.

2. The Works of John Buchan - £666
Thirty volumes in red cloth. With the gilt emblem of the authorīs initials on the front covers.

3. The Works of John Buchan - £650
Another 30-volume set.

4. The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan - £580
A rebound first edition of Buchan’s most famous work.

5. The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan - £550
Another rebound first edition of this famous spy novel.

 

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