Here, from the father of spy fiction, is the grand sequence of his great master spy's adventures in four famous books—The Thirty-Nine Steps, Greenmantle, Mr. Standfast, and The Three Hostages.
John Buchan is the father of the modern spy thriller. This is so even though the Hannay books are not, strictly speaking, about spies at all in the professional sense of the word. They are about penetration of the enemy, about lonely escape and wild journeys, about the thin veneer that stands between civilization and barbarism even in the most elegant drawing-room in London. Buchan wrote the formula, and from the appearance of The Thirty-Nine Steps until the rise of the disillusioned spy, of the man who has discovered that there is no moral difference between "us" and "them"—that is, until John Le Carre's third book, in 1963, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold—the formula remained tied to Buchan.
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, two years younger than Buchan when he began to write the book—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 . . .
In the first of Richard Hannay's adventures, The Thirty-Nine Steps, the excitement begins when Hannay finds a stranger lurking in his apartment. The stranger tells Hannay about an international plot, and, days later, he is found stabbed to death in Hannay's lodgings. Hannay is wrongly targeted as the murderer and escapes from London with the whole British police force—plus some dangerous thugs—at his heels. Hannay must avert the start of a war between England and Germany, and he has but three weeks and a day to complete the vital mission. Meanwhile, he must escape the clutches of an evil group known as "The Black Stone."
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