The Thirty-Nine Steps
by John Buchan
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.
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/index.html.
Peter runs sms books – an online bookshop in Loughborough, UK, that specialises in John Buchan.
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.