On this day in 1875, the lawyer-politician-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's 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 anything sexy or smug in The Thirty-Nine Steps. But 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 just twelve 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 sixty-four, by this time Lord Tweedsmuir of Elsfield and Govenor-General of Canada. His son William wrote, and his grandson, James Buchan, recently published his sixth novel, the well-reviewed The Persian Bride.
But the literary inheritance belongs to Fleming, the first (and many say the best) in the fourteen-book James Bond series, Casino Royale, published in 1953. The first British reviewers thought the plot "staggeringly unplausible" and "thoroughly exciting," something that a "supersonic John Buchan" might write. In the first chapter, 007 is on his 70th cigarette of the day; in Chapter 7, he delivers the recipe for the iconic, shaken-not-stirred martini:
"A dry martini," he said. "One. In a deep champagne goblet."
"Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon's, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it's ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon-peel. Got it?"
Later Bond tells the irresistible Vesper Lynd that he is naming his drink 'The Vesper,' as something irresistible, and "very appropriate to the violet hour when my cocktail will now be drunk all over the world." At the end, when their stay at the "Inn of the Forbidden Fruit" is very over, and Bond has discovered Vesper's suicide note saying that she was a double agent for the Russians, he reports back to London that "the bitch is dead." Spoken like a true supersonic.