Does Anyone Remember Helen MacInnes?

Best-Selling Author, Helen MacInnes

Does anyone remember Helen MacInnes?  She was a best-selling author who wrote espionage thrillers beginning in the 1940’s.  The forties–a time when women were supposed to be barefoot and in the kitchen.  The average monthly salary was $1,299 and only one in five Americans had a car.  This was the world that Scottish-born MacInnes found herself in when she decided to write her novels.

Rosie The Riveter

Sure there was Rosie the Riveter in her rolled-up overalls doing great things for women’s independence;  but it was rather unheard of for a woman to write novels about men saving the world, fighting bad guys and getting (sometimes) the girl (Who may or may not be on the right side.) at the end.  This was an era when it was perfectly fine, dare I say natural if women did not keep up with current events or know exactly why the world was about to explode into its second global conflict.  But there was MacInnes in the literary thick of it all, brilliantly writing about the politics of the day in the most au courant of ways.

I stumbled upon her books while working part-time at a library.  (I was really still a SAHM but I wanted someone to pay me to leave the house for fifteen hours a week and this library offered, so…)  I was straightening shelves (i.e. finding books to read) when I came across the novel, North From Rome.  It was old, dusty and the cover screamed ‘Yes, I am an antiquated novel from the fifties!’  However, the title had the word ‘Rome’ in it and since I love to read stories and view films set in Bella Roma, I read the dust cover.  To my surprise, it was a novel about espionage.  I saw key phrases like ‘American abroad’, spies, beautiful woman…and I was hooked.

Working at a library, as you might imagine, I brought home stacks of books everyday.  My collection of borrowed books was unrealistically high and my husband was concerned that I might read myself blind. (Not to worry, my eyes are fine.) I put North From Rome on the top of the stack and began reading it that night.  For me, the novel turned out to be one of those books that you stay up until 3 am to finish.  It was just that good.

A Librarian (But Not Me!)

The next day I returned to the library and checked out every Helen MacInnes book they had (And you will find that almost every library has most of her titles.  They might be collecting dust in a basement somewhere but they have them.) and proceeded to read them throughout the week.  I found her books to be addictive.  But then again, someone who was known as the “Queen of Spy Writers” must have known what she was doing, d’accord?

And her protagonist was always a witty, cool guy from the fifties that only wore suits, lit cigarettes for ladies and had a strong sense of honor.  A sort of James Bond without the ego or instinct for killing, although her characters always knew how to handle a gun when necessary.  He typically was a writer, working in publishing–maybe a lawyer going abroad for business,  and then he stumbled into international intrigue and danger.  I mean, it was always an accident that propelled the hero into the plot.

And there was romance with a pretty girl and bad guys with a political agenda.  MacInnes’ writing is almost Hemingway-ish in its understatement but always very witty.  And the suspense is of the on-the-edge-of-your-seat variety.  Many call her the precursor to Robert Ludlum (That’s the guy who wrote the books the Jason Bourne movies were based on–you did know there were books first, right?).  Even though her stories, for the most part are set during World War II and the Cold War, I found her stories to be relevant and somewhat timeless.  I mean, there will always be political unrest and countries using espionage in the interest of national security, yes?

What really appealed to me in her stories were the international settings:  Rome, Venice, Athens…all places I love or imagine I would like to go.  Often or not, the characters of her novels were racing from one fabulous European destination to the next.   After reading her novel, you felt as if you had visited the cities that the story took place in, I mean literally walked the streets and knew your way around.  And if you found yourself on the way to the areas written about, you had a genuine list of tourist spots, restaurants and cafes to visit.

Her career spanned forty years and  twenty-two books.  She sold twenty-five million novels in just the USA.  Four of her novels were made into successful films.  Dear Readers, she used to be as famous as Nora Roberts or the ubiquitous Nicholas Sparks but now you can purchase her books online for pennies on the dollar and practically no one knows her name.

I would like to see a re-emergence of her novels.  Certainly the estates of authors like Robert Ludlum, V.C. Andrews and Carolyn Keene are still cranking out books, graphic novels and TV and film projects.  Posthumously, their name recognition is stronger than when they were alive.

I think her publishers should reprint her novels with brand new covers and the films that were made into movies during the sixties should be remade.  Certainly, if they can remake the Crazies (Which was surprisingly good for a pseudo-zombie flick and I don’t usually ‘do’ horror. ) certainly a once popular slickly written spy thriller would do well at the box office.  Or how about a video game or comic book inspired by one or more of her titles?  It has been done before.

She has a few novels that are not espionage thrillers and a smattering of spy novels that did not appeal to me.  However, I would personally recommend North from Rome, Decision at Delphi (Love those snazzy titles.), the Venetian Affair, The Salzburg Connection and Ride a Pale Horse (her only spy thriller featuring a female lead).  If you enjoy reading Romantic Suspense or watching James Bond films, you will probably enjoy these titles.

I think it is a shame that Helen MacInness is all but forgotten today.  I mean, it’s kind of like in 2050, know one remembering James Patterson or Nicholas Sparks.  And that seems unfathomable, doesn’t it?

 

Discuss on Twitter:  @awomanreading #RememberHelenMacInnes?

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66 thoughts on “Does Anyone Remember Helen MacInnes?

  1. I’ve been a H.M. fan for decades – I periodically re-read all her books. She’s still one of the best ever. Not too long ago I ran across (and purchased) a copy of ‘The Unconquerable’ thinking I had found a H.M. title I’d never heard of – was slightly disappointed to find it was actually a retitled ‘While Still We Live’ – which I’d already read and re-read several times. No matter – sat down and re-read it again!! There’s been 1 or 2 of her books that were just “ok” – but the rest more than made up for those.

  2. I’ve read a bunch of her books and enjoyed them all, but I must say that my favorite is one that is as far from espionage as you can get–Rest and Be Thankful. The heroines are 37 and 53 and have spent their lives traveling in dilettante expatriot circles in Europe (while also–this is mentioned in passing–running an underground printing press and helping the Free French during the war), but start on a trip across America and end up buying a house on a ranch that they open to unpublished writers. Lots of life-changing but subtle events happen slowly. Just a lovely read!

  3. I read all her books as they came out (I am 68 yrs old) & it’s too bad there aren’t more of them. She was one of the great writers of espionage of all times & anyone who has not read her books has missed a great reading adventure. By
    the way, she is on e-books now.

  4. Am currently reading Message From Malaga (1971) I lived in southern Spain and Morocco for six years at that same time and am seeing those days through this fine book with a main character named Ian (a nod to Fleming?). H.M.’s certainly a fine genre writer worth a revival and a few films. I write about adaptations of books made into forgotten films up to the year 1939. Much to be said about HM’s books and other women writers of the early 20th. Her first book was the last film of Conrad Veidt, seen in the incomparable director Michael Powell’s films Spy In Black (1939) and Contraband (1940) of the same espionage genre .

  5. Always really dug Helen MacInnes – discovered her as a youngster living in Monrovia, Liberia in the my school (St. Patrick’s High School) library – in between The Hardy Boys, The Executioner, The Destroyer, Alistair Maclean and Lord Of The Rings was Helen MacInnes – – great locations, intriguing storylines, fascinating twists – – just enough to keep a 14 year old mind occupied – – gotta find these again.

  6. I am pleased to report that Helen is back in print through Titan publishing in the UK. Not only is she available in paperback, but her books have been digitized and should be on Amazon Kindle as well. Great to hear that her fan base is still in tact.

    1. my daughters and I are huge fans — getting all of her books from the stacks at the London Barbican library and then purchasing them second hand from ABeBooks. Are you related??? we absolutely love the books and th quality of her writing!!!

  7. I am re-discovering our Helen now, re-reading her list from end to beginning. No, I don’t know why. But she was and still is a pro. I have forgotten her by any means. By the way– no funny intended here– but who is/was Nicholas Sparks???

  8. I’ve just discovered that Macinnes books are now ebooks. I had almost given up hope. I have read and reread her books since I was a teenager! I totally agree that she is the precurser to Ludlum, especially his earlier works.

    1. I just happily discovered that Titan Books published many of her novels in paperback in March 2013. I bought them today at Barnes and Noble.

  9. I typed in “Helen MacInnes” because i am reading her book “While Still We Live” for I don’t know, the fiftieth time, and wanted to know more about the author. This site came up! I am very happy to see how many people like and appreciate this author. Her plots are exciting, her background research is very thorough and the style of her writing is impeccable, By the way, if you like Helen MacInnes, you should try reading Alan Furst, who is currently producing some great WWII – era thrillers.
    Christine

    1. I recently finished re-reading “While Still We Live.” Even better than I remembered! It got me interested in Poland during the run-up to WWII, and I just today finished Alan Furst’s “The Spies of Warsaw,” I’ve been enjoying his books too, love his main characters! I also noticed the BBC America miniseries “The Spies of Warsaw” on amazon, and my husband and I just watched the first installment tonight.

  10. From Above Suspicion and Assignment in Brittany to The Salzburg Connection and Prelude to Terror, Helen MacInnes captivated me in the genre of just good story telling without what some authors today stoop to inorder to get on best seller lists. Forty-five years ago I discovered Helen and here I am at 73 re-reading her work for the third and fourth time. It is wonderful to keep discovering her over and over again.

  11. Thanks for this post. I read Helen McInnes a long time ago and was just looking for some info on her when I found your blog post. Unfortunately my local library got rid of their Stack (old books held off site until requested) some years ago. I was reading my way through them until one day I submitted my request form to be told that the books I was requesting had been thrown away. It was agonising. 😦 Now I’m hoping that books come back via ereaders but there is nothing quite like browsing your way through print books in a catalogue system and finding gems.

  12. The first 4 Helen MacInnes books to be released in the US for kindle appeared on my device today!! Very happy to be able to take them everywhere and looking forward to the release of the rest.

    The first one I read was The Salzburg Connection. It was in my parents’ bookshelf. Then I read Prelude To Terror, which I bought in the hospital gift shop where I worked as a candy striper. The rest is history!

  13. I’m very pleased to see that so many other people, both male and female, have enjoyed the many great novels by Helen MacInnes. My first read was “While still we live” ,not exactly a guy book, but it got this guy completely hooked. I was 40 at the timeand I’m now 78. I scoured the bookshops for every other book she had written and eventually read them all. One of the saddest days of this old man’s life was when I read that she had died, and I could no longer expect to read any great new books by her. Since then I’ve re-read every book at least once, and they are still among my favorites. I’ve raved about her to many people and most of them have agreed that she is great.

    Teddy Forhane

  14. I have read and re-read all Helen MacInness’ novels and thoroughly enjoyed each one. They have a place of honor on my bookshelves. Wonderful characters, action, and settings!

  15. If you have not seen Snare of the Hunter you are in for a delight. It was of course a Cold War novel, but late cold war.

    MacInees had a way of changing viewpoints within a scene that I have not seen done well by many. She was a master story teller. You also learn as much about some places like Salzberg as you would from watching a Tv guide show…

    Jerry Pournelle

    1. Thanks for the reminder! I had forgotten about this book–so glad so many people
      are keeping her books in the public eye.

  16. I read every Helen MacInnes and loved them all. I had forgotten about them but am so glad you brought the topic up. I’d love to read them again.

  17. So happy to see this entry on Helen MacInnes! My grandmother handed me a copy of The Hidden Target several years ago and said simply, “Read this. It’s really good.” I’ve always trusted her judgement, so while the cover looked dated and (I hate to admit it) I’d never heard of Ms. MacInnes (despite being an avid reader of all types of books for 30+ years), I gave it a go. Read it in a day because I couldn’t put it down. My grandmother died recently and while going through her things I found a sizeable stash of MacInnes’ other novels. So I’m spending the month of July missing her and reading these great old books. My grandmother always did have great taste and I will be adding her copies of MacInnes’ books to my library and making sure to introduce my kids to them well before they reach their mid-30s!

  18. i am thrilled there are so many other fans out there. I have a shelf of tattered paperbacks that i keep because i love to reread these. Wish they were coming out in digital version as well!

  19. Snare of the Hunter is my favourite, possibly because it was the first I read. All my paperbacks are falling to pieces after so much handling! I can’t wait for them to be available on ebook.

  20. Helen MacInnes – brilliant! First read was ‘Message from Malaga’ found in a second-hand store and it was the first book that gripped and excited me – you always felt as though the bad guys were just behind you and gaining. If she had written a hundred more cold war thrillers I’d read the lot …

  21. I am delighted to see this new interest in Helen MacInnes. I first read Assignment in Brittany as a serial in the Saturday Evening Post. My next one was Above Suspicion, and I never stopped looking for her books after that. I recently gave a paperback, Message from Malaga, to a friend of mine. She introduced me to this site! Keep reading and promoting the books of Helen MacInnes.

  22. I have almost all, if not all, of her books, from “back in the day” (my day) when I bought them, to books picked up at library sales, yard sales, wherever. I would like her main male characters if I met them, as opposed to James Bond, the ulitmate male chauvanist with an enormous ego. She also gives excellent insight into the post-WWII and Cold War eras, so besides being enjoyable, the books are instructive in the best possible way. Just finished “The Hidden Target” today for the who-knows-how-manyeth-time. Good stuff!

  23. I’ve been enjoying Helen MacInnes’ books for many, many years and am now in the process of collecting hardcover editions, finding them on Ebay and in second-hand stores, etc. I reread them every so often and never tire of them. I definitely agree that she was a woman well ahead of her time, and her writing style is superb!! I’m sure she was a very interesting person to know.

  24. I just wrote to Newsweek because I noticed in the Mad Men edition, the identified her as Heather MacInnes. I was surprised at how much that bothered me. I didn’t get to work when I should because I felt compelled to write and correct them as below.

    For those of us who grew up in the 60’s reading Helen MacInnes novels, who learned about a world of adventure in Europe where seemingly ordinary men and women were thrust into a world of intrigue and rose to the occasion, to find her book The Double Image noteworthy and then get her name wrong was such a disappointment. I remember the first time I set foot on the Via Veneto or the Boboli Gardens, I pictured the scenes from her books. When I was in Mykonos, I could picture the characters there. Her novels made me want a bigger world. Her novels reminded us women were extraordinary too. She wrote of people of character, people with ethics, people who did the right thing for the right reasons. She colored a world I wanted to see. She deserves to have her name correctly identified. It would do the next generations a world of good to go to the used book stores and read the collection. I still get them for young people to read.

    1. “Her novels made me want a bigger world.” Thank you for saying this. It is what I realized struck me about Helen MacInnes novels. When I was a child, a family friend would pick me up from our rural home and take me to the library – a place I’d have otherwise never been able to visit. It changed my world. She suggested I might like a book by this author. I read them all. I’ve re-read many of them and they are on my list of books to read again as I find time. I never thought much about who she was or how extraordinary it was that this author was a woman. I just simply was intrigued by her writings, totally engulfed by whichever book of hers I was reading, and still inside the book after I finished reading it. Reading her novels made me want to read other novels and made me dream about places I thought I’d never be able to visit – a bigger world than the one I knew.

  25. I’m so happy to find this! I have always loved Helen MacInnes. I think I first read her back in the early 70’s when gothic novels (Victoria Holt, Mary Stewart, etc.) were popular. Like you, I loved them for the suspense and the exotic locations. But there’s something else I’m not sure I saw back then: she is a superb writer. That is, the quality of her writing is quite extraordinary. I understand the comparisons to Hemingway, but MacInnes writing has a finely crafted richness I don’t see in his work. Right now I’m reading Friends and Lovers, one I don’t think I’ve read before and am astonished at the description, the character development and the universal insight. I so hope the republication is successful!

    Thanks so much for your post!

  26. I remember Helen MacInnes well. She was the person that started me reading books. I am 76 now and when I was in the 9th grade I discovered the school library. The first book I barrowed was Assignment Brittany. I could not put it down and have been reading books ever since. My local Carnegie Library no longer has her books but I see that the branch in the next town does have three of her books. One is Assignment Brittany. I will go there and take another look at it.

  27. I absolutely love Helen MacInnes!! SO glad to see that other people do as well! I found my first novel of hers on my grandmother’s book shelf when I was in high school about ten or fifteen years ago. Since then I have read them all numerous times! I never get tired of her novels. I pick them up whenever I see them at a used book store so I have extra copies for when I wear one out or give one to a friend! Thanks for this post; I believe I will re-read one shortly…I also find it interesting to consider her husband’s career and how much of the novels came from his experiences. I highly encourage anyone who has not read Helen MacInnes to do so! They are all great stories, still relevant in many ways, and so much fun!!

  28. Hi! I’ve read all of Helen MacInness’s books, and I’ve got almost the whole collection on my home bookshelves. Her first book I read was Ride a Pale Horse–I was supposed to go out with friends that night to party, but I could not put the book down and stayed up to 3am reading it. In some of the “about the author” clips on the back of her books it says her husband worked for MI5 (which would account for her material and knowledge), then became an Oxford Don. She is one of my favorite authors, and I always enjoy re-reading her books. My favorite? While Still We Live.

  29. Helen Macinnes is among many of the “older forgotten” authors whose work ought to be reissued in e-book format if nothing else, since that is an increasingly popular format and might be the most effective way to reach younger readers who had never heard of her. I always thing of Alistair Maclean, too, since they seemed to have written during about the same time period and I remember having collected all of the Fawcett Crest paperback editions of each author! Does it sound strange when I say I have fond memories of certain book publishers, it seemed like each one had their own unique style as far as the book covers, bindings, etc. I will admit I have grown fond of my kindle version of books, I only wish many of them would have an image of a “cover” of sorts, to at least somewhat mimic the actual bound copy of a book…it would be nice if it would be an image of a first-edition cover. I hope that makes sense to someone else!

    1. I agree – a first edition cover would make a great addition – though I suppose black and white is somewhat limiting to early versions.

  30. If you wish to read Helen McInnes’ books,more or less in sequence, start with Friends and Lovers, was set in the min-1930s, a precursor to her later books, while not a spy thriller. Then along came Above Suspicion, set in either 1938 or 1939, just before the war, WWII, While Still We Live, set in 1939 leading up to the invasion of Poland through the first winter of the occupation. Horizon takes place in about 1943, during the Italian campaign from the viewpoint of a POW who escapes during the confusion right after Italy surrendered to the Allies. Her writing is much better than Robert Ludlum’s in my opinion. She is far more literate, and I daresay, intelligent.

    1. Assignment in Brittany is also WWII and then there are all the post-war books. i think the publishing order is close to the chronological order.

  31. I always loved the way the same characters showed up in different books, sometimes in different roles. I started reading her in the early 70s when I was in my 20s. Still pick them up from time to time to reread. Great post!

  32. I was coming home from the Peace Corps in 1968 and was in Athens in a hotel reading Decision at Delphi and remember feeling somewhat frightend (terrified?) since I was alone at the time. I went to Delphi in the following days. Too much! I have read about three-fourths of her books and reread one when I want to return to a younger time for us all even though the politics were so real and serious.

  33. Wonderful piece, brought back such memories.

    My mother too had tons of MacInnes’ books on her shelf, which I discovered one rainy after and haven’t looked back since! I find tons of them in second-hand book stores and had amassed quite the collection… till I lost them all, sadly.

    I agree with whatever someone said before: “Friends and Lovers” has no spies or guns, and is surprisingly touching. Almost made me want to be a poverty stricken young lover 🙂

    The first I ever read was also Assignment in Brittany. Excellent book. But my favourite remains The Unconquerable, about the German invasion of Poland. Even today, my image of an ideal man is Adam Wisniewski.

  34. The first one I read was Assignment in Brittany and I loved it, thought it was wonderful. One of the best things about the story was that she wrote it before the end of WWII, so didn’t know how it was going to end. I highly recommend this book. I’ve also read her other thrillers and enjoyed them, too.

  35. I totally agree with you about Helen MacInnes. I have been reading and rereading her books for the last 30 years. They are addicting. You usually have to finish them the day you start them. I do love her espionage books and feel that I have been there after reading her books. But have you read Rest and Be Thankful? It is not espionage, but it is absolutely the best ‘feel good’ book that I have ever read. I read that she tried a different kind of writing but got lukewarm reception. That was too bad, because she was unbelievable at this kind of story telling also.

    1. Just read that one, don’t know how I missed it; wonderful book, outlines the masks and games people play without being cruel; and love triumphs!

  36. Sorry. Didn’t finish thoughts.

    Don’t know if reissues are tied up in son’s estate. My library has removed all but 2 of her 20+ books. Dated, as some critics say? MacInnes talks about financing of terrorists etc. years before 9/11.

    Also read son wrote about father’s war years, but again not available at my library.

  37. Unfortunately I have read only half of Helen MacInnes novels as a young women but now will have to start reading the rest of them. I remember reading While Still We Live, The Salzburg Connection and Decision at Delphi and couldn’t put them down until I finished them! I tried to get one of her books at my city library recently, (which by the way claims to be the #1 library in the USA) and they had none of her novels. I couldn’t believe it!! I am going to talk to the librarian to get Helen MacInnes on our shelves asap. She cannot be fogotten for her works. I agree with you she needs to be discovered again!!!

    1. A counterbalance, different but similar, might be Madeline L’Engle – another intelligent, well-bred woman who wrote well.

  38. When I was growing up, my mother had loads of Helen MacInnes novels on her bookshelves. I’ve never read one but must make sure I do now, as they sound wonderful!

    Great blog :0)

  39. I’m nuts about her books, always have been. Her husband, the classics professor, was a spy during WW II. “Friends and Lovers” reads incredibly autobiographically to me — have you read it? Lasty, “Neither Five Nor Three”, set in NYC, concerns mis-information and who decides — how do they decide — what we get to read and hear: altho that’s a theme through all of her books. When I get to Greece some day, I’ll have her books set there as a guide. The one that quotes from Cavafy — blanking out on title — is particularly chilling. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helen_MacInnes

    1. I remember reading on the dust cover of one of her books, that her husband worked for the Foreign Service or at U.S. embassies in some capacity, which sounds vaguely like a cover. : ) I suspected that he was a spy. But when I was writing this article, I couldn’t find any mention of it online for verification, so I didn’t write about it. But I’m sure his lifestyle and work were the inspiration for her many stories.

      I have not read Friends and Lovers but I will try to find it this weekend.

      Thank you for stopping by.

  40. Wow, I have never heard of this author which is a real tragedy. She was clearly full of ambition and spirit in such a different time period. In my book, that makes her a hero to me and to all women writer’s out there who want to express themselves. This is a great article, very in-depth. I will definitely check out her books!

    Brittany Roshelle, The Write Stuff

    http://brittanyroshelle.wordpress.com/

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