Friday, May 22, 2009

Libros del Awesome : The 39 Steps

In case you couldn't tell, this is another Continuing Series of posts. "Libros del Awesome" is meant to catalog those books I don't think enough people have read, either because they are hard to find or just because. Helps if they have a cool cover. I really liked the "Forgotten Books" posts I keep seeing on other blogs, and I don't know how the whole thing works but they seem to be based off of this lady's blog. Again, not knowing the whole protocol thing I didn't want to horn in. And anyway I don't just want to write about forgotten books since I think there are plenty of books for me to write about that aren't necessarily obscure pulp paperbacks. Think of LdA as more of a reading list for people who want to make other people's heads explode using only their mind.

Anyway, writing about The Copperhead in my post below reminded me of a great article I read about The 39 Steps by John Buchan. This was another great bargain book I picked up at Borders for 3 or 4 bucks. But at least this is a book that is almost a hundred years old, kept alive by the redoubtable Penguin. The cover design is also awesome as you can see; I always feel a little weird with a Penguin edition with that big orange stripe across the cover. Makes me feel like I'm in school. It's like a visible rumble strip or something - "Warning, this book is boring or for eggheads or both".

Well, I don't know that anyone would call me intellectual (especially based on the last couple of posts on here) but I'm not anti-intellectual, either. I'm not an expert or anything but I think a writer should have a very wide range of interests and read about all kinds of bizarre topics. The way I figured out I was a writer was that I realized that my talent for remembering or half-remembering obscure facts and other bits of knowledge was not only a way to win free drinks at Trivia Night or annoy the Hell out of everyone (I always rooted for Cliff on Cheers), but a way to be able to at least half-convincingly write about something I knew nothing about, or at least give my research into a topic I wanted to know more about for a story some direction and purpose and make the job a lot easier. I decided that this was the state of the "writer's mind" and one day if I meet a couple or read enough blogs I thnk I'll find I'm right.

Anyway, the book. Unfortunately I couldn't find a great essay that talked about this book, maybe it was a book review, that covered a lot of what I was talking about with the Copperhead. How the concept of the "amateur adventurer" or "gentleman adventurer" is pretty much dead and what it says about society. Wish I could find it now (could have sworn it was in National Review but I can't find it). Anyway if I do I'll re-read it, edit this post and put some more about it here.

This is another one of those Books You Are Not Allowed to Read, or at least Not Allowed to Like. People make a big deal out of how the book is riddled with Jew-hating. Now, I like Jews. Maybe almost to a fault. And I'm not one who doesn't see anti-Semitism when it crops up, I've read whole books on it (really, the whole rest of the world is ignoring a lot of the shit going on in Europe but that's a digression). But I read the whole way through this thing, and the Nefarious Jew only comes up at the beginning, when Hannay is talking about the conspiracy that has brought the spy, Scudder, to his quiet London flat in hopes of hiding out for a bit:

"The Jew is everywhere, but you have to far down the backstairs to find him ... ten-to-one you are brought up against a little white-faced Jew in a bath-chair with an eye like a rattlesnake."
Lookit me! I figured out blockquote! Anyway, that was mostly it. And yeah, that's pretty bad, though I hadn't heard the whole "Jews are evil 'cause they're out for vengeance" line for a long while. I even went ya one better and found the book on Bartleby. Bless the Internet, I could search the whole damn book for "Jew" and "Jews". I came up with only one other comment that's even close to anti-Semitic:

"When a Jew shoots himself in the City and there is an inquest, the newspapers usually report that the deceased was 'well-nourished.'"

And that was it. So Jews are usually fat. OK, that's not exactly complimentary but it ain't Holocaust denial either. Every other mention of the Jews in the book basically points out how Scudder is kind of a dumbass for blaming it on the Jews: " ... a lot of eyewash". The Jews aren't really behind it at all - IT'S DA FILTHY HUN!

If it seems like I'm defending the book too much on this point, it's mostly because I got annoyed trying to find that damn article reading about how everyone was so embarassed by how damn politically incorrect the book is. Well, read and judge for yourself, you can do it for free.

I think more the point that bugs people is that they don't get the hero, Hannay, how he can do all this, like break the Blackstone cipher (SPOILERS! OMG!) by hand, or avoid the spies, or suss them out, all that stuff.

Point one is that, back in the day, that was a lot of the guys who were in the spy game before the founding of big organizations like the OSS or CIA. Spying was a gentleman's game, and in a lot of ways it still has that tradition to it. The CIA recruits from places like Yale and Harvard. and not because people from there are fantastically intelligent. You can find smart people most anywhere. It's always been kind of a class thing going on with that (which was part of why, I think, the OSS was chockablock full of Commie spies almost from the get-go).

Now some of it, of course, is the circles that a guy who went to a school like Yale or Harvard will end up being in. They are the elite so it's smart to recruit people like that. They go to the right parties and meet interesting people who do things like run a country's agriculture policy. So I don't completely chalk it up to class snobbery. But I've never bought that only five or six educational institutions house the best and brightest this country has to offer, or even have a majority of them. I went to a small mid-western college that was chock full of crazy-ass geniuses, and maybe I was one of them but I'd never say so.

People, I think, tend to assume that spies are like James Bond or even Jason Bourne. They have to know Krav Maga and how to make a car drift into a turn. 39 Steps puts the lie to that and shows you can have an interesting, exciting book with a guy who basically uses his own knowledge of things like hunting in the Scottish highlands to avoid a gang of ruthless killers, and his own good understanding of human nature and disguise to roll the whole crew up.

Admittedly I liked Steps not just because of these overarching themes that run through my head and animate me to get out there and write the books I think need to be written. I enjoyed it just because I like this world that's gone now, when a "monoplane" was a big deal, when the hero kits himself out with a three-piece tweed suit before he lams it (making sure to remember his pipe and plenty of tobacco), where a guy who was a colonial mining engineer has enough of an education that he can convincingly impersonate an Australian and give a short talk about liberal politics at a campaign rally.

I guess I could go on a lot more about what this book made me think than how much I enjoyed it if only because this blog is starting to become more about my own bizarre philosophy than it is my attempt to get my toe in the door of this Internet cultural circle of writers by posting about books and movies I like. That's not to say Steps isn't any good, though. The language is a little dry but I don't think it's worse than books other people read all the time, like Holmes stories or just about anything written by Edgar Rice Burroughs. The plot has plenty of twists but sometimes they're a little crazy, like how Hannay seems to just keep running into people even though he's supposedly out in the middle of BF Nowhere-Upon-Cumbria in the Scottish Lowlands, and that includes DA MASTERMIND of the whole plot (OMG SPOILERS). And sometimes you expect a twist coming but it never does, and to me that's OK. Twists are over-rated and used a little too much by people who I think are under the impression that if they can suddenly snap your head around with some crazy like an invisible polar-bear attacking or something, that that mean's their DLitt degree is in the mail along with a fellowship offer.

In a way, Buchan's not feeling he needs to gild the lily by having things like a pointless love interest or stupid twists increases the tension, because the modern reader keeps expecting these tropes and they never come. I was on the edge of my chair the whole time Hanny is waiting to meet Sir Walter because I was sure it was gonna be all DUN DUN DUHHHNNNN! NAZI! Or, you know, Kaiser. Anyway, that was a pleasant surprise.

Anyway, this book holds up, and I think more people who are into reading or even writing adventure fiction should read it because it's foundational. And even though it's public domain and all that I like the edition Penguin put out. It's a little book that fits great in a pocket and I hate reading lots of words on a computer monitor anyway. Well, writing them is a little different but you get my point. Books are just more fun.

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