John Buchan was born the son of a clergyman in Perth, Scotland in 1875. He attended Glasgow and Oxford Universities, and started to publish his fiction whilst there. Through his lifetime, he wrote more than 100 works.
A barrister and later a very successful Civil Servant in the diplomatic corps, Buchan wrote his stories primarily for his own entertainment. The 39 Steps was begun while he recovered from an ulcer in 1914 and was completed, and published, in 1915. Richard Hannay, the novel's hero, went on to feature in four later Buchan novels.
"An atheist is a man who has no invisible means of support." — John Buchan
In 1935 Buchan (by now the 1st Baron Tweedsmuir) was appointed Governor General of Canada, where he was a strong proponent of Canadian culture. In 1936, with the encouragement of his wife, Lady Tweedsmuir (also a writer), he created the Governor General's Literary Awards, which continue to be Canada's most prestigious recognition of literary merit. Stating that it was the Governor-General's duty "to know the whole of Canada and all the various types of her people," Buchan travelled widely in his new country, including to the Arctic Circle. He died while still in office, after a stroke and resulting fall.
Richard Hannay, the hero of The 39 Steps, is said to have been based on General Edmund Ironside, a member of British intelligence. Although this has not been proven, it is known that General Ironside once read Mr. Standfast (another of Buchan's Hannay novels) in the passenger seat of an open-cockpit biplane whilst flying over the Middle East.
Ironside once worked 'under cover' as a Boer wagon driver in southwest Africa and narrowly escaped capture after being identified. Very athletic and considered an excellent soldier, he fought at both Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele in World War I, and became one of the youngest major-generals in the British Army.
In later Buchan novels, Hannay undertakes a perilous journey through the Muslim world to thwart the Germans' plans to use religion to help them win World War I (Greenmantle), works undercover in Britain disguised as a pacifist (Mr. Standfast), rescues children kidnapped by a sinister criminal organization (The Three Hostages), and — now in his fifties — hunts for treasure on the Faroe Islands to fulfill an oath to an old friend (The Island of Sheep).
John Buchan worked as a war correspondent and was a skilled propagandist for the British government. According to some, he was involved in intelligence work. The spy novel is the perfect way to express fears of infiltration by the enemy, a key weapon in the propagandist armory.
The 39 Steps first appeared as an adventure serial in Blackwood's Magazine in 1915, before being published in book form later that year.
The novel has been adapted for film several times, most notably in Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 version. Among Hitchcock's changes to the original story is the addition of all the female characters: Buchan's The 39 Steps was a story told only by men.