Classic Crime

Helen MacInnes

Helen Clark MacInnes was born on October 7, 1907 in Glasgow. She was reared in a traditional Scots Presbyterian upbringing. Helen MacInnes graduated from the University of Glasgow in Scotland in 1928 with a degree in French and German. After her M.A. in 1928, MacInnes continued her studies at University College, London where she received a diploma in librarianship in 1931. While working as a librarian, MacInnes met and married the classics scholar Gilbert Highet on September 22, 1932. They moved to New York in 1937.

In the 1930s, MacInnes collaborated with Highet to translate German literature, which helped finance their summer travels through Europe. These European excursions gave MacInnes the exposure to the locations which would become the exotic settings of her espionage thrillers in later years.

Gilbert Highet served as an MI6 British intelligence agent, in addition to working as a classics scholar. Her husband's work in intelligence became a significant influence on MacInnes' novels. (Apparently Highet continued his work with MI6 even after moving to the U.S. in 1937). Highet accepted appointment as a professor and chairman of the department of classics (Latin and Greek) at Columbia University in New York City in 1937.

During the following 45 years, MacInnes wrote 21 espionage thrillers, four of which were later made into movies. MacInnes became a U.S. citizen in 1952.

MacInnes' second 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’, was such an accurate portrayal of the Polish resistance that some thought she was using classified information given her by her husband.

In her later books, she shifted her subject matter from World War II to the Cold War and continued to produce about one book every two years until her final novel, ‘Ride a Pale Horse’ in 1984. Gilbert Highet died in 1978 and Helen MacInnes died in New York City on September 20, 1985.

Review: North From Rome

In ‘North From Rome’, we meet William Lammiter. He came to the city over a month ago, on the pretext of working on his new play. But actually, he is in pursuit of his former fiancée, Eleanor.

Written in 1958, at the height of the Cold War, MacInnes weaves a dramatic thriller around the fear generated by the discovery of Burgess and MacLean’s betrayal back in ‘51. What begins as one man’s quest for information quickly escalates into something much darker, and more sinister.

As the story opens, it’s about 3.30 in the morning and Lammiter is standing on his hotel balcony enjoying a last cigarette. Finding the city almost at peace, he ignores the few stragglers making their way home, and the white-uniformed policemen on their rounds, instead imagining the view that the Roman soldiers must have had all those centuries ago, when they manned the ancient city wall and looked out over the vast, wild country that lay before them.

He wonders what a sentry must have felt – loneliness, fear? Perhaps a premonition of something dark about to unfold? Or was he just bored, waiting for his shift to end and dreaming about the time when he could leave the service and take up farming near Perugia, in the Umbrian hills? This is where he ought to be, Bill thinks to himself, writing his new hit. He knows there is nothing to keep him in Rome any longer. But he hasn’t done a stroke of work, all his ideas have left him and worse still, he’s lost his girl. Feeling angry with himself, he turns to go back indoors, but then from the quiet street he hears a woman’s cry…

From this moment, Lammiter is drawn into a dangerous game. Through a series of incidents, and because of his associations within the American Embassy (including information gathered from an, as yet unidentified source), he is determined as being someone who could prove useful and is therefore reluctantly persuaded to join the cause.

The plot unfurls at a delicious pace - the action taking place over a mere two days - and MacInnes keeps you guessing all the way. With so many players (including an aging Princess, an Italian Count, a couple of eccentric Englishmen, an old colleague called Bunny and a grumpy Sicilian), who can Bill Lammiter trust? Where is all this leading? And just how much danger is Eleanor in? This is a sophisticated tale and the story builds up to an exciting climax.

I was first introduced to Helen MacInnes by my sister in the early nineties. We shared a passion for crime fiction, and were always on the look-out for new authors. Having been brought up on Agatha Christie (a favourite of my mother’s), we naturally favoured the more classic writers.

At about the same time I was reading Graham Greene, and it was only later that I found out that MacInnes had been favourably compared to both him and Eric Ambler. I took to her immediately, for she has a wonderful writing style - a way of setting the mood of the entire novel from the opening few lines. She makes you care, and her descriptions of locations are so personal, you feel you are right there. Having travelled extensively with her husband, Gilbert Highet (who himself worked for MI6) she had a wealth of experience to draw on.

What set MacInnes apart are her characters. They are well-drawn and honestly inscribed, and there is no lack of humour in their dealings with each other. There is intelligence and wit, as well as romance – but not for her the femme fatale, or whimpering lady in distress. Her women are as equal to the task as the men, merely employing whatever means necessary to encourage others to follow.

Where another author may dully and dutifully plod along, MacInnes' use of prose is natural and the dialogue flows easily. As a New York Times book review at the time states: ‘The hallmarks of a MacInnes novel of suspense are as individual and as clearly stamped as a Hitchcock thriller.’ High praise indeed.

Helen MacInnes review written by Emma Murphy. Emma is an ardent crime fiction reader. Special thanks for her wonderful review on MacInnes.

Reviewed by: E.M.

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