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Bookends: A little free reading from the past February 18, 2015

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends.
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Bookends: A little free reading from the past

By Dan Davidson

October 22, 2014

– 862 words –

 

The Thirty-Nine StepsThe Thirty-nine Steps

By John Buchan

in many formats, real and digital

 

John Buchan, First Baron Tweedsmuir, was Canada’s fifteenth Governor General, but long before that he wrote literally dozens of novels, non-fiction books, biographies and even poetry.

The 39 Steps was his fifth novel, produced in 1915, and the first of seven to feature its hero, Richard Hannay. A truncated version of the story is familiar to most people through the film Alfred Hitchcock directed in 1935 or one of the three others over the years (1959, 1978 and 2008). I’ve seen two of the films but had never actually read the book until last week.

At around 100 pages in most editions, it is available in 168 different formats and all the major e-reader services offer it as a free book, so I’m not even listing publishing information on this one. My downloads were from two different sources, including the easy to access Project Gutenburg (on my Blackberry Playbook tablet) and FreeBooks.com on my Apple devices. All of the Hannay books can also be had in very cheap omnibus e-book editions from Kindle or Kobo.

We meet Hannay in London a few months before the beginning of the Great War. He’s an expatriate Scot who has been working as a mining engineer in Rhodesia, and has come back home to Britain to find that it rather bores him.

That doesn’t last. He’s approached by a chap named Scudder, a freelance spy who has stumbled onto an international conspiracy to start a war. Hannay’s only half convinced by Scudder’s tale, but allows him to seek safety from people he says are after him in his flat. He becomes fully convinced when he returns home one day to find Scudder dead.

He heads out on the run for two reasons. The first is that he expects to be the chief suspect in Scudder’s murder, and the second is that he feels responsible for finishing what the obsessive little man had begun.

The plot becomes a series of encounters with various people he meets along his trail to the Scottish highlands, where he decides to hide out. He has with him Scudder’s coded notebook, which he manages to decipher. At one point he actually meets the scoundrel who is masterminding the plot, is captured and locked up. But who locks a mining engineer in a storeroom full of the materials with which he can blast his way out?

Escaping, he eventually is found by the authorities, who have already figured out he’s not a villain, and is able to assist them in tracking down the nasty Germans and foiling their nefarious plot – even though this only delays the start of the war by a few months.

Hitchcock shortened the story by deleting some of the road stories, but changed the whole meaning of the title for some reason. The 1978 version restored the original meaning of the title, but added an impressive but weirdly inserted scene with Big Ben.

Once you’ve read a Buchan “shocker”, as he called them, you can immediately see the influence they had on people like Ian Fleming and others of the early spy novel writers.

 

A Plague of Demons and other storiesA Plague of Demons

By Keith Laumer

Baen Books

576 pages

$10.79

 

The lead short novel in this omnibus volume is still on my shelves from when I read it back in the 1960s. Keith Laumer was a favorite of mine in those days. The former US Air Force officer and diplomat had a successful career as a straightforward adventure science fiction writer and was also capable of turning out some hilarious material. His Retief series drew on his diplomatic background and was a sort of a cross between James Bond and Get Smart, with his hero as the straight man in a crazy galaxy.

This book contains the title novel and a batch of shorter material, ranging in length from short story to novella. What they all have in common is that they involve encounters between humanity and a variety of alien races. In most of them the ingenuity of humanity wins out over the aliens. In several of them the protagonist is enabled to develop mental abilities that make it possible for him to succeed against overwhelming odds, but in one case this newfound power leads to corruption.

Plague is also noteworthy for introducing the concept of the Bolo war machines, mechanized engines of destruction – super tanks – controlled by living brains. Laumer’s Bolo concept proved so appealing that it became a shared universe for other writers to play in. There was a Bolo anthology series that ran to seven volumes after Laumer died in 1993, and a whole new series of novels by a variety of authors began at the turn of this century and ran until about four years ago.

Baen Books has a program of repackaging some successful older writers, organizing their work by theme and providing little essays analyzing their work. Eric Flint, a Laumer fan, has been in charge of this set of books, many of which have been available through the Baen Free Library, a collection of digital downloads. While this can be bought as a physical book, the BFL is where I got this one.

 

-30-

 

 

 

 

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