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.
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.
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?