Don’t be left out in the cold (war, that is).

Posted: April 30, 2012 in All things literary
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Do you remember the Cold War or do you think the Cold War is what a grocery store wages against you when you come near the frozen food section?  Do you like to read books that are located in places you’d love to visit? Do you believe all Nazis disappeared after World War II ended?  Do you enjoy espionage books with lots of action, cool gadgets, a bit of romance?  Do you think that if you ever really met James Bond, you’d find him insufferable?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions,  run, don’t walk, to the library and check out (literally and figuratively) any book by Helen MacInnes.  Helen MacInnes was born in Scotland in 1907 and married classicist Gilbert Highet in 1932.  They moved to the US five years later.  Highet taught at Columbia University, but he also worked for MI6 before (and even after) moving to the US.  So MacInnes came by her interest in espionage naturally.  Having a spy for a spouse could also give you lots of good ideas and feedback, even if he didn’t talk about his work in specifics!

Wikipedia’s article on MacInnes says:

“MacInnes’s third novel, Assignment in Brittany (1942), was required reading for Allied intelligence agents who were being sent to work with the French resistance against the Nazis. Her 1944 book, The Unconquerables carries such an accurate portrayal of the Polish resistance that some thought she was using classified information given to her by her husband.”  High praise, indeed!

Now you know you’re getting the real thing when you read her books.  Four of them were made into movies; news to me, but I’ll be watching them as soon as possible.  Although she writes about grim times and situations, her writing is spare and she doesn’t dwell on torture, killing and other uncomfortable things in the prurient manner of so many of today’s writers of thrillers and mysteries.  Her heroes and heroines are likeable and believable people, more than I can say for the aforementioned James Bond.  (Please, if you’re a Bond fan, don’t hate me.  I enjoy the movies but I also know I would find Bond extremely annoying in real life.  Of course, Bond books and movies aren’t real life, but you know what I’m saying.)

MacInnes wrote 21 thrillers, enough to keep you occupied some time, even without the movies.  I have almost all or possibly all of her books (have to check my list),  ferreted out at library sales (hopefully your library isn’t selling them) and used bookstores.  However, soon you won’t even have the excuse of not being able to find them.  They’re coming back into print this summer from Titan Books:

Hurrah for Titan Books!! And I saw on Amazon that you can pre-order Assignment in Brittany and Pray For a Brave Heart for Kindle, available January 13, 2013.  In the meantime, look for the books at your library and don’t start one late at night!

If you’d like to read a bit more about Helen MacInnes, here’s a blog post I found while looking for information on her:

The Wikipedia article says in closing:

“MacInnes’s Cold War writing, in particular, through the images that hide the grim reality of betrayal, is a literary extension of George Orwell. Her writing also reflects an affinity for Arthur Koestler and Rebecca West, with her strong opposition to any form of tyranny and totalitarianism.”

 You certainly could do worse!

  1. Thank you for the mention. My post on McInnes is constantly one of my most popular.

    • Happy to do it. I started re-reading some of her books recently and realized once more how much I enjoy her (which led me to both your post and to creating mine.) I look forward to the books being reissued!

  2. […] 2 1/2 years ago, when almost no one was reading my blog, I shared my love for the books of Helen MacInnes.  Her books are a great way to learn about the  Cold War and WWII by reading about the impact of […]

  3. I am MacInnes’ grand-daughter, Marshall Highet, and I am thrilled to read this article. It is great to know that she is being discovered and written about still! I wrote the foreword to the republication of her e-books through Titan. There is also talk of an espionage program on BBC this spring featuring a segment on Helen. Very exciting. I read that you hadn’t seen any of the films (although this was three years ago now). I would skip Above Suspicion as it butchers the plot-line, in my opinion. But it does have Joan Crawford in the lead, so there’s that. I am an author also, although I write Y.A. sci-fi, not espionage thrillers. Here’s a link to my newly published work, if you’re interested:
    Thanks for the great write up! I’m sure she would’ve enjoyed reading it, especially in 2015

    • Marshall, you made my day with your comment! Your grand-mother was a tremendous writer and I’ve always thought that people would have a better understanding of WWII and the Cold War if they read her books. If you see anything definite on the BBC segment, please let me know. I’d love to see it. I’ll take a look at your book as well. I’m collecting her books for my Kindle, although e-books aren’t as inexpensive as I’d like. 🙂 I have quite a few in paperback or hardcover as well.

      Thanks again!