I’ve just finished something of a mini-binge of World War II-era spy thrillers, with the first two of what would turn into a handsome list of espionage and suspense thrillers by Helen MacInnes.
Above Suspicion was the first, and published in 1941 in the opening moves of what was to become the prolonged agony of the Second Great War, its urgent and foreboding tone rocketed it to bestseller heights. MacInnes followed her first novel by another even more topically urgent and dark, Assignment in Brittany, in 1942.
Though definitely dated, these suspense novels are decidedly still very readable today, made even more enthralling by the fact that we know what happened in the years after, while MacInnes and her heroic characters are facing a tremendous and forbidding Great Unknown. I’m going to give brief sketches of both in two hundred word snapshots, if I can condense them so tightly – with the strong recommendation that you discover these for yourself if you feel that these might be your thing. These two novels are excellent examples of their genre, though highly dramatized and relying upon those inevitable unlikely coincidences and lucky breaks in order to bring them to a satisfactory conclusion. Though neither has an ending that is neatly rounded off; the settings and times don’t allow it.
I have read Above Suspicion numerous times through the years, but Assignment in Brittany was new to me, and I was pleased at how engaging both of these were, even though in the first I knew the plot inside and out, and the second I guessed at rather successfully all of the way through, except for the rather heartrending (but ultimately optimistic) twist at the very end.
Both books were immediate bestsellers, and remain very readable – and continually in print – almost seventy-five years after their first publication.
Above Suspicion by Helen MacInnes ~ 1941. This edition: Triangle Books, 1944. Hardcover. 333 pages.
My rating: 8.5/10
Young Oxford University don Richard Myles and his wife Frances are recruited to travel to Europe during summer break in order to discover what has happened to a possibly-compromised chain of British secret service agents. The premise being that the two are so innocent-seeming as to be able to wander at will, from agent to agent, following the links as identified at each contact. In their travels they run in and out of numerous sinister encounters; the Nazis are very much on the ascendant and their evil shadow looms over the lands the Myles visit on their journeyings.
A novel made most poignant by the time of writing; the last months of peacetime shadowed by foreboding clouds of war. The author draws upon personal experience in telling her tale, and it is an interesting combination of travelogue and suspense thriller, full of asides describing the scenes in which the action is set, and philosophical musings regarding the whys and wherefores of the imminent conflict. The German psyche is searchingly probed by a very British analyst – MacInnes in the guise of her heroic (and autobiographical) married couple – and found to be both blustering and chillingly focussed on military dominion.
Assignment in Brittany by Helen MacInnes ~ 1942. This edition: Little, Brown & Co., 1942. Hardcover. 373 pages.
My rating: 9/10
Martin Hearne is parachuted into Brittany, into the very forefront of the Nazi occupation, in the guise of his French body double, Bertrand Corlay. Many surprises await Hearne, not least of which is the discovery that his predecessor was less than forthcoming about some of his own activities before his evacuation to England via the Dunkirk debacle. For instance, his pre-marital arrangement with the neighbouring farmer’s daughter, Anne, and his estrangement from his invalid mother, who keeps strictly to her own rooms in the shared household. Who is beautiful and passionately forthcoming Elise? Why do the Nazi occupiers greet “Bertrand Corlay” with warm enthusiasm, while his fellow villagers hiss in cold disgust?
An escaping American journalist sheltering in the Corlay home sets off a string of complications, most notably a dramatic trip to the medieval monastic stronghold of Mont St. Michel, situated at the end of a causeway above tidal flats of quicksand. A return to the Corlay home finds Hearne confronted by steely-eyed Teutons who have discovered their collaborator is not what he seems, in so very many ways. Will Hearne make it back to England with his meticulously written notes and maps, as well as his new-found love?
Good dramatic stuff, rather nicely plotted for its type of thing, though with an exceedingly strong reliance on Hand of Coincidence. The evil Boche are given no ground, and the resident Bretons are depicted as cunning and stubborn survivors, insular to an astounding degree, but in the main resistant to their unwelcome occupiers by a combination of sullen non-cooperation and occasional acts of secret sabotage.
An engaging period thriller, written at the time it depicts, and so a valuable snapshot of the mood and details of its moment in time as well as a very readable diversion.