Places: The Thirty-nine Steps

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1915

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Spy

Time of work: 1914

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Scotland

*Scotland. Thirty-nine Steps, TheNumerous rural locations in the lowlands of Scotland, including small towns, farms, country houses, and open fields, figure into this spy story. Through most of the novel, the inhabitants of these locations are shown going about their customary lives, ignorant of the secret assassination plot that drives the action. Thus, the characters complain about self-important railway employees, discuss price fluctuations in the cattle markets, and sleep off hangovers, in ironic contrast to protagonist Richard Hannay, who is trying to hide himself from foreign agents.

Hannay, a moderately wealthy South African, takes an undercover tour of this placid setting and comes to know Scotland as a place of great, though subtle, beauty. The rural people with whom he interacts are distrustful of strangers but generous to a fault, especially to those down on their luck. The positive representations of the Scottish people and of Scotland reflect John Buchan’s own Scottish upbringing.

More important from the point of view of the novel, the peaceful country and virtuous inhabitants are used to emphasize the familiar espionage contrast between hidden dangers and surface placidity. Like many other spy novels, this one uses setting as theme, and appearances are deceiving. In fact, the Scottish setting allows for a two-fold incorporation of this theme since both the assassins and Hannay go under cover. The assassins do so in order to carry out their criminal scheme, and Hannay does so in order to save his own life. This irony is not only situational but also dramatic, since Hannay shares his hard-won knowledge with readers. Hence, readers also understand the falsity of appearances.

Seaside housing development

Seaside housing development. Collection of resort villas on the coast of England, presented as typically English. This setting is highly significant, although it is presented only in the final chapters of the novel. Close to the end of the work, Hannay convinces various government ministers of the reality of an assassination plot and works with them to arrest the assassins. To do this, Hannay must penetrate the disguises of the villains, who take the covers of middle-class Englishmen.

This coastal setting concludes the novel and provides final emphasis to the theme of deceptive appearances. Only at the very end of the novel are the seemingly English inhabitants revealed as German spies.


*London. Great Britain’s capital city provides the novel’s opening setting and is sketchily presented as a place of boredom for Hannay. The fashionable sights and sounds of pre-World War I London pale quickly for this man of adventure, who has earned his fortune in the rough and tumble of South Africa’s diamond fields. To Hannay and the readers, London quickly turns into a familiar facade, behind which devious operators execute hidden and malicious schemes. This theme is introduced through a secondary character who intrudes himself on the narrator and spins a paranoid and anti-Semitic tale of espionage and assassination. This secondary character impresses Hannay so much that Hannay begins to take on his worldview and perceive the falsity of surfaces. When Hannay flees London into rural Scotland, he takes this learned view with him.

London settings also allow Buchan to introduce a minor theme, that of the contrast between urban flaccidity and rural hardiness. In contrast to the later Scottish setting, the London of the novel is too tame a place in which to live, and Hannay longs for some adventure to revive his flagging spirit.

BibliographyCawelti, John G., and Bruce A. Rosenberg. The Spy Story. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987. In what is probably the best overall analysis of Buchan’s spy novels, the authors praise The Thirty-nine Steps as his most completely successful book and examine its connections to John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678).Daniell, David. The Interpreter’s House: A Critical Assessment of John Buchan. London: Thomas Nelson, 1975. A full-length assessment of all of Buchan’s writing, both nonfiction and fiction. Focuses on the earlier, lesser-known works, but also contains a fine analysis of his spy and adventure fiction.MacGlone, James M. “The Printed Texts of John Buchan’s The Thirty-nine Steps, 1915-1940.” The Bibliotheck: A Scottish Journal of Bibliography and Allied Topics 13 (1986): 9-24. MacGlone’s exhaustive study of the printed texts of The Thirty-nine Steps traces the varying stages of the novel’s development.Panek, LeRoy L. The Special Branch: The British Spy Novel, 1890-1980. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1981. Traces the origins of Buchan’s spy novels to the earlier books of Edgar Wallace, E. Phillips Oppenheim, and William Le Queux and to the development of espionage fiction during the late nineteenth century.Smith, Janet Adam. John Buchan: A Biography. Boston: Little, Brown, 1965. A comprehensive biography that traces the many interests of this multifaceted man. This volume is well illustrated and contains a good checklist of Buchan’s works.Winks, Robin. “John Buchan: Stalking the Wilder Game.” In The Four Adventures of Richard Hannay, by John Buchan. Boston: David R. Godine, 1988. Attempts to dispel concerns over the racism, sexism, jingoism, and anti-Semitism that Buchan’s spy novels contain. Includes a listing of libraries with holdings of Buchan’s papers.
Categories: Places