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John Buchan wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps while he was ill in bed with a duodenal ulcer, an illness which remained with him all his life. The novel is set during May and June 1914; Europe is close to war and spies are everywhere. Richard Hannay the protagonist and narrator, an expatriate Scot, returns to his new home, a flat in London, after a long stay in Rhodesia, in order to begin a new life. One night he is buttonholed by a stranger, a well-travelled American, who claims to be in fear for his life. The man appears to know of an anarchist plot to destabilise Europe, beginning with a plan to assassinate the Greek Premier, Karolides, during his forthcoming visit to London. The man reveals his name to be Franklin P. Scudder, a freelance spy, and remarks that he is dead, which holds Hannay's attention. Scudder explains that he has faked his own death in order to avert suspicion. Scudder claims to be following a ring of German spies called the Black Stone who are trying to steal British plans for the outbreak of war. Hannay lets Scudder hide in his flat, and sure enough the next day another man is discovered having apparently committed suicide in the same building. Four days later Hannay returns home to find Scudder dead with a knife through his heart.
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