The Man on the Run story has become something of an archetype for the modern thriller. or is it a cliché? It is a common trope in film and television, appearing in classics like North by Northwest and The Fugitive (not to mention the remakes and sequels) as well as plenty of forgettable flicks.

So, what is it?  The basic premise is that the subject is accused of a crime he didn’t commit, and is forced to hide from the authorities (or at least a subgroup of them) and possibly the actual villains, while attempting to unravel the mystery and prove his innocence.

It’s a well-trod path. You can probably think of a few: Le Carre-Our Game; Graham Greene-The Man Within; James Grady-Six Days of the Condor; Stephen Hunter-Point of Impact (refashioned as Shooter in the movies and recent TV series) and several others; lots of books by Allen Furst. It’s a favored form of the espionage novel, no doubt, even the most literary ones. It even appears, though not as the main conceit of the work in Les Miserables and Kidnapped.

So, what’s this about? I read in passing (I don’t know where, mea culpa, or when) that the first of these books was The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan. Turns out that’s not necessarily true, but before I learned the facts, I read the book.

Apropos of nothing, Richard Hannay is bored. Recently returned home to London after working as an engineer in Africa, he is bored with the city, with his acquaintances, with himself. Fortuitously, at this very moment there is a rapping at his door. His American neighbor asks if he can come in, claiming to be in grave danger. The man, Scudder (I see you, Lawrence Block!),  unwinds a seemingly preposterous tale of a plot to assassinate the Greek Premier during an upcoming visit to London, thus upsetting the balance in Europe and leading to war. Scudder says he has faked his own death with a corpse in his flat and that a German group called Black Stone was attempting to steal the British Navy’s defense plans for the war. Mannay believes him, because who wouldn’t, right? Then Scudder is murdered in Mannay’s apartment and he realizes two things: first, it’s going to be hard to explain another dead body in the building (I see you too, Steve,  Martin, and Selena), and second, he and only he can stop Black Stone, save the Greek Premier, and stop the war (no comment).

So let’s take a step back. This all happens in the first ten pages or so, and yes, it’s a little ham-fisted. Hannay is ready to believe anything Scudder tells him since he’s the right sort of chap, I guess, never mind how outrageous the claims. Perhaps he was greatly inclined toward an anarchist conspiracy, after an evening in the club. Who knows?

Anyway, realizing the danger after Scudder’s death, Hannay slips away dressed as a milkman, and takes a train to Scotland, as one does when avoiding German spies and Scotland Yard, to try to buy some time and figure out what to do next.

Hannay is a master of slipping through danger by the skim of his proverbial teeth, whether he does so by donning a disguise, stealing a car, using brute force, or just charming his counterpart. He also spins his tale of daring to find patriotic support when needed. Naturally, good prevails in the end, God and Country and all that.

So, what do we think? The Thirty-Nine Steps is a primitive case of the Man on the Run archetype, and an early espionage thriller (Buchan called it a “shocker”). I found some of the jumps in believability more than a little over the top. How lucky one is that a letter from a local politician can get one in to see a head of the Foreign Office. How lucky to have been believed in the first place. Lucky chap, not going over the cliff, you must be alright! On the other hand, Buchan has some great scenes evading capture, and donning disguise to elude villains, and a few silly bits with the country politico.

Rogue Male CoverOverall, I don’t know if this is an essential book for most readers, unless you really want to dig into early spy novels and thrillers to develop a richer history of the genre. It’s kind of fun, suspension of disbelief is definitely required, and be prepared for some eye-rolling. To pick up the thread from earlier, Buchan wrote four other Hannay stories, and a number of other adventure tales, but The Thirty-Nine Steps remains the most remembered.

While writing this review, I had a thought about two other post-war stories that take a different tack on the Man on the Run motif — the hunters. The first, which I probably read as part of the curriculum in high school is The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell. It’s been remade into a few movies or as an episode for few tv shows, where the hunters, desiring a more complex prey, decide to hunt humans (in this case, other hunters). Even better is Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male, which you can find among the amazing NYRB Classics wherein a professional hunter slips into a Central European dictator’s compound. He is captured and tortured, yet escapes. Even upon returning to England, he is not safe, however. I’ll leave it there—it’s a great read, psychologically taxing.