Spy thrillers are the sort of books you buy during a long layover at the airport and then leave conveniently in the back pocket of an airplane seat when you are done with them. Why don’t you bring them home to your bookshelf to preserve them for posterity? Because they’re formula novels–if you’ve read one, you’ve read them all. Once you’ve navigated the twists and turns and know the ending, there’s no reason to ever crack the cover again.
But one thing to remember is that every genre of formula novel started somewhere with an original, a prototype that subsequent authors copy. And though the children of the formula only serve to while away a few hours of air travel, the grand old ancestor is often well worth revisiting. After all, his work was compelling and enduring enough to populate the whole world with clones.
John Buchan, born in 1875, is credited with being the “father of the modern spy thriller.” His hero, Richard Hannay, debuts in The Thirty-Nine Steps. A citizen of South Africa, Hannay is visiting England just prior to the start of World War I. Ordinary life in Britain, he discovers, is intolerably boring–until a mysterious stranger, sharing his apartment building, invades his privacy with a disturbing story of a conspiracy that will shake the foundations of Europe. When this new acquaintance meets the wrong end of a knife, Hannay takes over the stranger’s mission. Armed with only the sparsest of clues (what do the “thirty-nine steps” refer to?) and his own natural cunning, Hannay evades and foils the criminal masterminds of Europe and earns the undying thanks of the British Intelligence Service.
After reading The Thirty-Nine Steps, I continued on to Hannay’s second adventure entitled Greenmantle. In some ways, Greenmantle the was more exciting read because the stakes were higher. Now Richard Hannay has to stop the insidious Germans from using a Muslim fanatic to proclaim jihad and raising the whole of the East against Britain and the Allies. In other ways, Greenmantle was more tedious; Buchan has a set formula for his stories, and when you read two books of the same formula the one right after the other, you feel a hint of deja vu, perhaps even a sense of ennui.
Robin W. Winks, in the introduction to The Thirty-Nine Steps, offers this helpful analysis of the trademark Buchan plot that so many others have copied:
“What is the Buchan formula? The Thirty-Nine Steps shows the formula at its most pure…. Take an attractive man, not too young–Hannay is thirty-seven in Steps–and not too old, since he must have the knowledge of maturity and substantial experience on which he will draw while being able to respond to the physical rigors of chase and pursuit. Let the hero, who appears at first to be relatively ordinary, and who thinks of himself as commonplace, be drawn against his best judgment into a mystery he only vaguely comprehends, so that he and the reader may share the growing tension together. Set him a task to perform…. Place obstacles in his path–the enemy, best left as ill-defined as possible, so that our hero cannot be certain who he might trust. See to it that he cannot turn to established authority for help, indeed that the police, the military, the establishment will be actively working against him. Then set a clock ticking….”
Reading this description, I could not help thinking how it could just as easily fit Dan Brown’s hero Robert Langdon (from The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons) as it does Richard Hannay. But though I intend to shelve my copy of Buchan’s novels, my Dan Brown paperbacks have long since disappeared. There is a certain glory in being the first of a kind.