Literary daybook, Aug. 26

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

Published August 26, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

Today in fiction

On Aug. 26, 1146, Andreas takes refuge in the cathedral.
-- "The Difficult Saint" (1999)
by Sharan Newman

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to

- - - - - - - - - - -

Today in Literary History
On this day in 1875, the lawyer, politician and writer John Buchan was born, in Perth, Scotland. Buchan wrote prolifically and in almost all genres, but he is best known for his spy-adventure novels, particularly the first "Richard Hannay" book, "The Thirty-Nine Steps." Some trace the spy genre back to "The Spy" (1821) by James Fenimore Cooper, and others regard Erskine Childers' "The Riddle of the Sands" (1903) as the beginning, but most give Buchan credit for the kind of espionage thriller -- he called them "shockers" -- that would eventually arrive at James Bond.

Not that there is the hint of a woman in "The Thirty-Nine Steps," though Hitchcock would change that. Nor is there irony, or any wishy-washy thinking about "us" and "them." There is a galloping plot, a supervillain of malignant evil, flurries of deception and deduction, and of course pipe-smoking Hannay doing his Boys' Own best for Club and Empire, though "bottled as a pickled herring" from the start and doomed with 12 hours to go:

"Then suddenly I had an inspiration.
'Where is Scudder's book?' I cried to Sir Walter. 'Quick, man, I remember something in it.'
He unlocked the door of a bureau and gave it to me.
I found the place. 'Thirty-nine steps,' I read, and again, 'Thirty-nine steps -- I counted them -- High tide, 10.17 p.m.' The Admiralty man was looking at me as if he thought I had gone mad.
'Don't you see it's a clue,' I shouted ... "

The real staircase belonged to Buchan's friends, leading from their villa to the beach; when they replaced the original wood with metal, they gave him the last board with a brass plaque, "The Thirty-Ninth Step."

Buchan died at 64, by this time Lord Tweedsmuir of Elsfield and governor-general of Canada. His son William wrote as well, and his grandson, James Buchan, recently published his sixth novel, the well-reviewed "The Persian Bride."

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

By the Salon Books Editors

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Richard Blumenthal