This post was originally part of InSpyNoMo.
The basic plotline of The Thirty-nine Steps (1914) is thus: Richard Hannay is taken into confidence by a man who has been hunting down evidence that proves supposedly friendly powers are decidedly un-. He has uncovered a plot that will effectively start a Europe-wide war, with devastating consequences for all sides. This plot is scheduled to unfold on 15 June. It is now 24 May. The man has been followed by agents of this unfriendly power, who not-much-later kill him in Hannay’s rooms. Hannay, fearing these agents him be after him and sure the police will believe him the murderer, flees London to Scotland where he must hide out for nearly three weeks before he can make any attempt to foil the coup. In the days that follow he is chased all over Britain, takes on various disguises, in captured and escapes, makes friends with someone who happens to be god-son of one of the high-ups in the Foreign Office, returns to the South to counterplot with the authorities (who no longer believe him a murderer) their foil.
The Thirty-nine Steps is perhaps the first truly successful work in the genre that simultaneously helps define it. Of course, the shape would shift and change several times over the course of the next 50 years, but it boasts virtually all the features that we later come to expect: a vague conspiracy that could spell the end for civilisation as we know it, cunning agents from foreign powers, incredulous persons in positions of authority, a counter conspiracy to deactivate the initial plot. But in particular, the position of the hero himself becomes defined. Hannay virtually contorts himself through the various functions the hero performs simultaneously: the hero as receiver of information, the hero as hunted from the enemy, the hero as hunted from his own society, the hero as necessarily something other from mainstream society, the hero as possessing unique depths of courage/intelligence.
With The Thirty-nine Steps, Buchan established another aspect of the hero which took well over 40 years to shake. Richard Hannay is an amateur. He is an otherwise insignificant and ordinary person who stumbles upon information that something huge in international politics is about to happen. He is forced to participate by virtue of his knowledge, to become the defender of order (rather than the restorer, as in other types of thrillers/adventure narratives). His ability to rise to the occasion is vital to the security of everything he holds to be true. However, in being forced into action, rather than initiating it, he must chase the course of the action as it unfolds. This ultimately means that we see him engage in something like Zeno’s paradox in which he must race to achieve his aim, the object always in sight, yet constantly in fear that he’ll never quite make it.
However, perhaps even more importantly than the hunted-male plotline, Buchan establishes precisely what makes the villain so dangerous: just as the hero is expelled from ‘normal’ society, the villain is virtually welcomed, so seamless is his disguise. A good spy villain is evil incarnate; a great spy villain appears to be a saint. It is only by forcing the villain to expose himself that he can be caught, yet exposure comes in the form of a gesture, the twitch of an eyelid, the slight tilt of the head. Nothing that the hero pinpoint if asked, but enough that he knows without a doubt that the person before him is not who they say they are.
This is perhaps Buchan’s lasting legacy, as virtually the most grotesque of all villains hereafter are those appear to be little more than your neighbour.