Thursday, November 12, 2009



Helen MacInnes was a female author ahead of her time. Because of the romantic subplots inherent in her writing, critics would have preferred to class her as simply a romance writer. They would even have been happy to have her exist in the world of cozy mysteries along with Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. But MacInnes’ writing defied these classifications. She wrote thrillers in a time when thrillers were the exclusive stomping ground of male authors.

What to do? What to do? Instead of giving MacInnes her due, critics tagged her as a suspense writer – a sort of Daphne DeMaurier of the espionage set.

In reality, MacInnes excelled at writing thrillers about innocent travellers (almost always Americans in Europe) who fall into an espionage situation and find their patriotism driving them to go where they never would have thought of going before. Her novels did feature romantic sub-plots, but they were always linked in some manner to the main thiller plot. As one reviewer wrote, "North By Northwest is almost a perfect MacInnes novel, except that it wasn't. But if you've seen the movie, you'll know what I mean.”

I read MacInnes while I was in my teens and twenties and enjoyed most of her output. The Venetian Affair remains one of my favorites, written during the peak of the Cold War and at the peak of her career. It is typical MacInnes – a resourceful, intelligent amateur finds himself by chance in a situation where a skilled agent would fear to tread, and then manages with luck and pluck to get back out again.

New York drama critic Bill Fenner arrives in Paris, only to discover that his coat has accidentally been switched with another – and that he is therefore now $100,000 richer.

But when the American Embassy refers him to NATO and the CIA, what started as a simple mistake becomes something far more complicated and deadly. For when Fenner hears of a Communist plot to assassinate DeGaulle, he is also informed that the key to stopping it lies in his own past...

While the plot to assassinate De Gaulle is dated, MacInnes writing is excellent. I recently read The Venetian Affair again while on a trip to Venice earlier this year. MacInnes’ descriptions of Venice so brought the city to life, I could have used the novel as a guidebook (along with Brunetti’s Venice taken from the novels of Donna Leon).

While MacInnes characters are not exceedingly complex, I enjoy them – they are smart, tough, and always respond intelligently to jeopardy. I also enjoyed the twists of the plot, the touch of romance, and the happy ending. You can’t ask for much more.

While four of MacInnes novels were made into films in the sixties, including The Venitian Affair, the screenplays had little in common with the books beyond the titles. It’s probably time for a revival ala’ Ludlum’s Jason Bourne books. Like Ludlum, MacInnes takes her readers all over the world at a dizzying pace, and it's a terrific ride.


pattinase (abbott) said...

It's been far too long since I read her. Thanks for the reminder.

Bill Crider said...

I read a lot of her books in the '60s. This is one of my favorites, too.

Evan Lewis said...

Never been tempted to try her... until now. Thanks, Paul.