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Children's Bookshelf

February 09, 1986|KRISTIANA GREGORY

THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS by John Buchan, illustrated by Philip Hood (Merrimack: $18.95; 140 pp.; age 12-up). My collection of Nancy Drew mysteries from the 1930s is ragged but cherished, the covers of blue cloth still intact. How welcome then is this new edition of John Buchan's 1915 classic, also clothed in that midnight blue with inlaid paintings on front. The book, never mind its story, feels like another one to slip safely on a shelf, to return to again and again.

For those who haven't read this famous thriller or seen one of three films made in its honor, the scheme is simple. In London, before World War I, Richard Hannay has an odd visitor who warns of an evil international plot. But before he can reveal details, the visitor is stabbed to death, leaving only a coded black book and a frightened Hannay, who flees to Scotland even though innocent of the killing.

Unwittingly, he becomes involved in espionage, stalked by German spies as well as the police who want him for murder. Hannay's adventures across desolate moors and finally on the cliffs of Kent are wonderfully vivid and not too gory for young readers. Adults reading aloud might have to pause at bits of Scottish dialogue, but otherwise the narrative is crisp.

Alfred Hitchcock created his own classic when he filmed "The 39 Steps" in 1935, but he improvised by using light comedy and romance. The movie was remade in 1959 by Ralph Thomas, then again in 1978 by Don Sharp, who was more faithful to Buchan's original plot. However popular these films, reading about Hannay still does the best job of dropping you into his world.

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