The Thirty-Nine Steps: Chapter Five Close Reading

The fifth chapter of John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps documents the transformation of protagonist Richard Hannay into his fourth disguise. Hannay, a mining engineer bored with the melancholy of his life in London, is suddenly thrust into the world of political espionage after the murder of his neighbor and freelance spy Franklin Scudder. After discovering Scudder’s body in his flat, Hannay escapes to Scotland to avoid false charges of homicide and the Black Stone, a group of German spies on a mission to destabilize Europe. Now on the run with Scudder’s notebook, Hannay moves through various personalities to evade the Black Stone spies. This particular chapter follows Hannay into the Scottish moors where he meets roadman Alexander Turnbull, whom he pretends to be for both his and Turnbull’s benefit.

One of the most striking features of the chapter is Buchan’s particular word choice, which gives three distinct tones to its passages. First is Hannay’s impression of the roadman and his dress. Hannay notes Turnbull’s ‘filthy, old hat’ the ‘foul stump of a clay pipe,’ and the ‘vulgar’ color of the shirt gifted to him by Sir Harry. Buchan employs such diction to form the foundation of Hannay’s disguise and allows the rest of his appearance to fall into suit. He uses dust to create a water-mark around his neck where he imagines Turnbull’s washing might end. He rubs dust into his eyes and sunburnt cheeks, scuffs up his boots until they are well-worn, and scrapes at his fingernails until the edges cracked. The particular word choice, then, is not merely an overview of the typical roadman but a layering of Hannay’s assumed identity as well.

The second tone is the specificity of aspects of Hannay’s appearance, which can be read as lending his character a certain anonymity. Hannay observes that the atrocious checked shirt received from Sir Harry, an accomplice met earlier in the tale, was the sort that ploughmen wear, that his neck is as brown as a tinker’s, and that his forearm resembles that of a blacksmith’s with its sunburn and old scars. Furthermore, Hannay believes a roadman’s eyes would also be slightly inflamed and endeavors to make his so by rubbing dirt into them. This listing of other professions not only presents a variety of other potential disguises, but also works to convey Hannay’s versatility and adaptability. Near the end of the chapter, Hannay mentions a scout in Rhodesia once told him that to ensure the success of any disguise it was necessary to ‘think yourself into it.’ With the combination and emphasis of both external and internal alteration, the passage echoes Scudder’s own transformation at the beginning of the novel – Hannay becomes Alexander Turnbull by wearing what he wears, eating what he eats, and thinking what he thinks. Thus, the parallel transformations allow for a unique alignment of Hannay and Scudder’s characters, and it can be argued that Hannay is not assuming the roadman’s person so much as the spy’s.

The third tone of the piece is apparent in Hannay’s description of his pursuers. Noticeably lacking from the narration is any sense of urgency, panic, or danger in the current predicament. Instead, Hannay refers to the German spies as his ‘friends’ and describes their relentless pursuit as a ‘match.’ Moreover, when speaking on the advice from his friend in Rhodesia, Hannay refers to his dealings as simply ‘queer.’ All three words support Hannay’s opinion of the entire affair as a game, like a high-stakes, transgeographical hide-and-go-seek. Additionally, the reader is reminded of Hannay’s idleness in London and the instant change in mood he experiences when first escaping capture by both the local police and the Black Stone. This is not to say that Hannay does not or refuses to comprehend the gravity of his situation, but rather that he rejoices in its severity and the excitement it brings to his previously monotonous existence. Like Sherlock Holmes, Hannay comes to operate as the bored intellectual.

A final note of interest from chapter five is the reflection of the shift from the industrial, motorized setting of London to the heather and bogs of the Scottish moors. There is a complementary change to Hannay’s geographical relocation evident in the Black Stone pursuers and the local details of Hannay’s brief time as a roadman. Once Hannay’s appearance and thoughts are to his satisfaction and his trek to and from the quarry has begun, sheep occasionally come off the heather to stare at him. Yet a heron alighting in the stream to fish took ‘no more notice of [him] than if [he] had been a milestone.’ The sheep and the heron mirror the German spies who searched the moors earlier in their motor car and airplane; therefore, the animals’ apparent indifference toward Hannay indicates the success of his disguise. Hannay does not seem so out of place that the moor’s local inhabitants take great notice of his presence, and this implies that Hannay’s disguise will be equally effective against the foreign spies that are after him.

Further confirmation of his outfit comes in the form of the new County Road Surveyor. Though new to the position, the Road Surveyor is assumed to be familiar with the appearance of the typical roadman, and Hannay has gone to such great lengths in attention to his looks that the appearance is validated. This ostensive authentication in turn gives Hannay the confidence to face his pursuers, who eventually follow the Surveyor up the road and meet Hannay. Moving ‘with the heavy step of the professional,’ Hannay has been efficacious in appearing, acting, and thinking himself into his chosen role, and therefore the disguise is a solid point in his favor in the game of life and death.