This October in Toronto, the largest city in Canada, the worldwide mystery conference Bouchercon held its annual get-together for readers, authors, agents, publishers, booksellers and other lovers of crime fiction.
Bouchercon — pronounced bough’-chur-con — is a nonprofit, all-volunteer organization that holds an annual convention in honor of Anthony Boucher (1911-68), an American mystery fiction critic, editor and author. There were more than four days of planned and ticketed events in Toronto, culminating with a Sunday brunch and presentation of the Anthony awards, the prestigious awards for the best mystery and crime writing for the previous calendar year.
This year, the Toronto group honored Canadian writers as prominent guests. Louise Penny, whose mystery series features Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, the head of homicide for the Sûreté du Québec, held top position. The Ghost of Honour, which honors a deceased writer, was John Buchan (1875-1940).
John Buchan was the first Baron Tweedsmuir and 15th governor general of Canada. Today, he is better remembered as an author, having penned nearly 30 novels and seven collections of short stories and biographies, as well as works on the history and his views of Canada. His most notable novel was “The 39 Steps,” first published in serialized form in 1915.
Although Buchan’s “The 39 Steps” was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1935, my favorite adaptation is the 2008 BBC television movie shown on “PBS Masterpiece Mystery.”
“The 39 Steps” is the quintessential spy novella qnd was written in 1915. It is set in pre-WWI England and is the first Buchan novel featuring Richard Hannay, a British Everyman, a mining engineer by trade. Bored by England and ready to return to South Africa, Hannay discovers a corpse with a cryptic notebook in his sitting room and sets out on an intriguing adventure.
The PBS production is excellent, well-acted, beautifully filmed. Rupert Penry-Jones plays Hannay and the addition of Lydia Leonard as a beautiful suffragette and spy is appropriate and exciting.
Many critics consider the 1959 Hitchcock film “North by Northwest” a remake of “The 39 Steps.” Rupert Penry-Jones directly referred to the comparison when he read the novella and watched the other film versions of Buchan’s spy story. He explained why he took the part during an interview with the Daily Record: “Part of the appeal was the cars, I’m a bit of a buff … And I said – jokingly, of course – that I wouldn’t be in ‘The 39 Steps’ unless the action included the famous chase scene in which Hannay is pursued by a biplane. I’ve always wanted to be chased by a plane like Cary Grant in the movie ‘North by Northwest’ and I was just delighted when it happened in our version of ‘Steps’.”
Postscript: The 2018 Bouchercon will be held in St. Petersburg, Sept. 6-9. Most past and prospective attendees book a year in advance. The host venue for this first Florida Bouchercon will be at the Vinoy Renaissance Resort & Golf Club. Ghost of Honor will be James D. MacDonald, the creator of Travis McGee.
Jane Crooks Britt is an octogenarian who has lived in Jacksonville off and on for over 30 years. She writes a monthly column in Tuesday’s Life section of the Times-Union.