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5. Bombshell Revelation for Thriller Lovers

My path to Valley of Seven Castles, a Luxembourg Thriller was in some ways accidental. I am referring primarily to the technical, structural, plotting aspects and therefore the models and antecedents on which this structure is built.

I have already mentioned my debt (primarily on atmospherics and pacing) to Robert Ludlum and the film makers of The Bourne Identity. The tense and dangerous run of Hannah Smith and Rick Buchan from Paris, across France, and into Luxembourg will remind readers of the cross-European odyssey in that 2002 film, one of my favorites. As my Thrilleroloy progresses, I will mention other favorites in the thriller genre—none more so than Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 classic North By Northwest.

I have been writing novels for half a century (over forty books to date) and have long been an avid student of plotting and structure, out of necessity in striving to deliver the best story possible. In the technical substructure of story telling (fiction, plays, and film), we endlessly dissect and analyze such issues as the three-act, four-act, or five-act structure.

I have made a particular point of studying the theories of the romance category, as expounded by Romance Writers of America and many writers in that field. I even wrote an RWA-sty le romance novel of the so-called 'clean' subcategory, titled Nice Cry that has been well received. In my youth, while stationed with the U.S. Army in West Germany, I wrote a novel of a romantic affair set in a New England college town, titled On Saint Ronan Street.

As you’ll see in my dissection of John Buchan’s archetypal 1915 classic (The Thirty-Nine Steps), I found a ready builder’s model for Valley of Seven Castles—and a deep secret about Alfred Hitchcock’s oeuvre.

* * * *

A number of pieces floated together to shape January 2016's Valley of Seven Castles. The following pieces are not necessarily in chronological order.

Piece #1: Years ago, my wife and I enjoyed watching a very nice film, a remake of John Buchan's 1915 thriller novel The Thirty-Nine Steps. This story has been remade so many times, and I felt such an immediate strong affinity for it, that I realized it must be an archetype. It stayed in my memory for years until I finally found my own vehicle (Valley of Seven Castles) to express the same basic plot idea. In other words: while I was studying all sorts of plot structures (three, four, five acts, etc.) it never really occurred to me to delve into what made Buchan's novel such a magnet—it is still getting film remakes into the 21st Century (some better than others, but it's an archetype of plot structure for sure).

Piece #2: Somewhere along the line over the years, I enjoyed watching a rather ancient black and white movie made in 1935 by Alfred Hitchcock, titled The 39 Steps. Yes, it was based on the 1915 John Buchan thriller. Note the slight difference in spelling the title. I figured that, if Hitch thought it was a great story, it really must be a great story. So far, so good.

Piece #3: Somewhere along the line, after 2000, I came across a cheap, plain Dover Edition of John Buchan's 1915 novel The Thirty-Nine Steps. I bought it and stashed it among my stacks and piles of books at home. I think I read it at some point, but retained only a general impression. All along, something nagged at me: what made this story so enduring?

Pieces #4: Over the years, I not only read thrillers, but wrote my first real thriller (CON2: The Generals of October) around 1992. As already mentioned, I wrote the first draft in three weeks, but spent a decade rewriting. It was my first really long, mainstream novel.

Pieces #5+… I had long studied the evolution of thrillers (as described in the previous section called Thrillerology). I have been passionate about political and social causes for many years, and my dissatisfaction with the corporate-republican rise from 1980 forward finally pushed me to the point where I wanted to capture my thoughts and feelings in a big novel that would serve as something of a parable. I was ready to write Valley of Seven Castles.

To understand where I am driving, we need to take my key influences one by one, starting with John Buchan's 1915 novel, and then Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 film based on Buchan's novel. The real surprise in all this is what comes next. Hint: it's another Alfred Hitchcock film.

* * * *

The 1915 story is a classic novel in ten relatively simply chapters or parts. I will indicate them in lower case for a reason. The story begins with a murder in the first chapter. The hero is framed for this crime, which he did not commit.

The hero goes on the run across the very green and scenic English countryside. He runs from both the bad guys and the authorities separately, hoping to discover the solution to the mystery (what Hitchcock typically termed "the McGuffin"—what are they after? What is the movie about?). He needs to all at once solve the mystery, save the nation, and clear his name.

In chapter six, the hero (Richard Hannay) is buzzed by a low-flying 'aeroplane,' a canvas-and-wood job from the early days of aviation, before World War I.

In chapter seven, the hero stumbles by chance upon a professor in an isolated cabin, who reveals much knowledge to him (the Wise Elder, I think Joseph Campbell called this persona).

Starting in chapter six, Hannay flips from being an outsider to becoming an insider. He is now privy to the central plot, and becomes a pivotal figure in solving it. He stops being on the run from authorities in chapter six, but is still on the outs with the bad guys right until the bitter end in chapter ten. The eponymous thirty-nine steps turn out to be exactly that many steps at a seaside villa, where the Kaiser's spies land on English soil.

One more note: the 1915 novel was an Edwardian fiction, written by a man of Victorian origins, and women did not figure in such fiction. We might point out exceptions like Wilkie Collins' The Lady in White, but generally women were hardly seen and not at all heard—even when you consider A. Conan Doyle's A Scandal in Bohemia (1891), in which the fictional actress Irene Adler has a prominent if shadowy role ("To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman…").

* * * *

Go forward twenty years, past the Great War. In 1935, Alfred Hitchcock recognized the powerful nature of Buchan's story, and made a movie of it. Hitchcock made the McGuffin something other than a seaside mansion of thirty-nine steps. The title in 1935 refers ambivalently to the name of a 1914ish German spy organization in England, and to the steps leading up to the Big Ben bell inside London's Westminster Tower.

Hitchcock does place two women in the film, one of whom he kills off early, and the other who becomes sort of a ditzy, attractive prop (Madelaine Carroll) for hero Richard Hannay (Robert Donat).

By the way, Hitchcock had a fascination with clocktowers. Besides Westminster in The 39 Steps, there is one in his 1934 The Man Who Knew Too Much, and another (Mission San Juan Bautista near San Francisco) in 1958's Vertigo.

Like the novel, the film is about a man framed for a crime he didn't commit. Now look for the same generic chapter/section structure here as in Buchan's novel. You could call it episodic (lurching from one action scene to the next).

Richard Hannay runs from the good guys and the bad guys, with a nuisance or complication being the reluctant inclusion of a female interest who is not developed very deeply.

In the sixth part (get the picture?) Hannay is buzzed by a plane. Hitchcock is said to have borrowed the first helicopter—a gyroplane or autogyro—for that scene.

In the seventh part, the hero stumbles on the professor in the cabin, and so forth to the ending.

You'd think that the Buchan plot structure faded away in 1935. But lo and behold, what did I discover?


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