You can't read or write thrillers without coming across a book entitled The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan. You probably first encounter it because of the Hitchcock film, or maybe another author or reviewer mentions it. I think I first came across it as an OTR adaptation, and later Buchan's work was mentioned as a precursor to Ian Fleming's novels. The Thirty-Nine Steps is touted as the "original thriller" that sets the table for every thriller that followed. By that, the critics are correct, first is first; however, it's not a good book.
The hero, Richard Hannay, in one of the strangest introductions ever written, is told of a sinister plot. The teller of the tale is murdered, and poor Dick is on the run. He has to stop the dastardly villains before they strike, or all is lost. Instead of taking direct action, Hannay spends 99% of the book running through the Scottish countryside hiding in bushes. He's being hunted by the villains, but not terribly efficiently. Every person he comes across is able to somehow assist him, and the string of coincidences Buchan expects us to swallow along the way are too much. Compared to The Thirty-Nine Steps, the television series 24 is the epitome of logic. In one sequence, for example, Hannay is captured and put in a farm shed. A mining engineer by trade, Hannay quickly deduces that there is material in the shed with which he can make a jolly good bomb! Right-O, let's blast our way out so we can go back to running through the bushes! The book is loaded with such "it just so happened" events that strain your sense of disbelief. It becomes a joke.
At 118 pages (in my Collins Classic edition), the story is thin. It's generic by today's standards, but there's a reason for that. Buchan may have been a pioneer in what we call a thriller today, but, in this book, he did nothing but lay a foundation upon which the rest of us have built the house. Pioneers may set the stage, but it's those who carry on that really take the creation and do something with it. Pick any of the old masters, and their modern counterparts do it better. The Mike Hammer novels may have been huge in their day, but they lack the scope and creativity of the Nate Heller books. Max Allan Collins took what Spillane built and greatly improved the concept. When you read Spillane afterwards, you wonder why he kept repeating the same ideas. Count how many "best buddies" Mike Hammer has to avenge to see what I mean. If you only have Kiss Me, Deadly and One Lonely Night, you have the best examples of Spillane available. Meanwhile, Collins always does something fresh. Not one Heller book is the same as another.
If I may borrow Raymond Chandler's opinion regarding the mystery story, no thriller has yet been written that can be considered so perfect that it cannot be surpassed by another. This is why we continue to assault the citadel. For that, we can thank John Buchan. We like to read thrillers, and a lot of us like to write them. They're fun and exciting. There's nothing better than a good thriller, and nothing worse than a bad one. While I appreciate Buchan's effort, I'm afraid The Thirty-Nine Steps is simply a decent beach book, but hardly a classic.