100 years of the modern spy thriller

This year marks the centenary of the publication of The Thirty-Nine Steps, arguably the world’s first modern spy thriller.

When John Buchan wrote the book around the outbreak of the Great War, he set a template not only for today’s espionage novels but for all thrillers alike.

It was innovative for its time, with its fast and speedy style, drawing on all the latest technology of the era, such as the single-wing plane, fast cars, motorbikes, radio, telephone and probably the first reference in literature to a semi-automatic gun.

While some credit Erskine Childers’ 1903 Victorian novel The Riddle of the Sands, as the first spy thriller ever published, there are many who point to Buchan as the father of the genre because of his modern writing style that aligns him with 20th century thriller writers.

Childers’ adventure story certainly had an influence on Buchan who wrote on the same theme about the threat of a German invasion of Britain. It had become a popular storyline among many writers since the 1880s until the eventual outbreak of World War One in 1914. Buchan’s novel was in fact the last to be written on the subject.

Buchan was born in Perth, Scotland, and went to Glasgow University and Oxford. He was already writing at this stage of his life, winning awards including for poetry. Despite his constant ill health, he was a barrister, MP, solder, writer and publisher.

His first success as an author was the publication of Prester John in 1910. It tells the story of a young Scotsman named David Crawfurd and his adventures in South Africa, where a Zulu uprising is tied to the medieval legend of Prester John. The hero in this story is later reincarnated as Richard Hannay in The Thirty-Nine Steps.

Buchan was looking to write a best seller as he had a good eye for book trends as a publisher. It took him only a few weeks to pen The Thirty-Nine Steps just after the outbreak of war, publishing the short novel the following year in October 1915. It was an instant hit with the solders in the trenches because not only did it take their minds off the fighting, but it was the type of book they could read in short bursts. Buchan had hit on a winning formula.

The premise of an innocent man getting accidentally caught up in international intrigue has become the bread and butter of many latter-day thriller writers. It is the classic call to adventure that makes this theme so enduring.

But the set-up used by Buchan has such a contemporary feel, providing you can put aside the anachronistic characters he describes in Edwardian Britain. Richard Hannay, a Scottish mining engineer, returns to London from Rhodesia and is so bored that he’s at the point of returning to Africa when he stumbles on a murder that could have implications to Britain’s security. Suddenly, his world is turned upside down and he’s on the run.

Buchan realised that the stakes had to be high to be put the readers on the edge of their seat. And nothing could be higher than Britain’s secret naval plans possibly falling into the hands of German spies. This at a time when his readers already understood what it felt to be at war.

Twenty years after its publication Hitchcock brought new life to the book with a comedy thriller, improving the story, and setting new standards in modern film making. Hitchcock via Buchan had established the chase thriller and then went on to re-cycle The 39 Steps in the guise of Foreign Correspondent, Saboteur, and North by Northwest.

I have to confess I’m a sucker of the man-on-the-run theme and in my debut thriller, HIDER/SEEKER, I have used it in an inverse way.

My favourite type of thriller is where an ordinary man, minding his own business, is suddenly put into jeopardy. In HIDER/SEEKER, the main character, Harry Bridger, is no ordinary man, but his nightmare begins when his client goes on the run.

I remember exactly where I first read The Thirty-Nine Steps. It was while on holiday in Torridon, in the Northwest Highlands of Scotland. We had rented a cottage and the landlord had left a pile of books for a rainy day. I sat down on a sofa after supper and never got up again until I’d finished the book. I can’t say that I’ve done that with many books.

The enigmatic title, which does not provide a credible pay off in the book, though Hitchcock does better, came from Buchan’s six year old daughter, Alice. She gifted him the title of his new novel while he was staying in a house in Kent with his family. It was the number of steps that went down to the beach from the house as told in the book’s finale.

Buchan was created Baron of Tweedsmuir of Elsfield and held the position of Governor-General of Canada until his death in 1940.

The British historian, G.M Trevelyan*, paid the following tribute to him. ‘I don’t think I remember anyone whose death evoked a more enviable outburst of sorrow, love and admiration.’

The book was published on 19 October 1915 by Blackwood & Sons of Edinburgh and the John Buchan Museum in Peebles, Scotland, will be celebrating its publication with a special exhibition. (See News)

* G.M Trevelyan’s work was much admired by Dr Rod Whitaker’s wife who suggested to her husband that he adopt the surname as his pseudonym, Trevanian. (See The countdown begins, 4 March 2015)

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at www.tomclaver.co.uk’.

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2 thoughts on “100 years of the modern spy thriller

    • There have been so many adaptations, it is not surprising that some overlook the original source.
      On the last count, there have been three films, one TV film, three radio plays and a video game. Not to mention a fun loving play that is a homage to Hitchcock’s film.
      Perhaps you may also be confusing your thoughts with The Third Man. The film script was written by Graham Greene who later wrote a book based on the screenplay he’d written. The film directed by Sir Carol Reed (uncle to Oliver Reed) starred Orson Welles and was considered by some a superior to the book.

      Liked by 1 person

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