Helen MacInnes MacInnes, Helen - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Helen MacInnes 1907–

Scottish-born American novelist.

Helen MacInnes writes novels of international intrigue based upon a pattern of traditional characters, values, and elements of suspense. Her standard conflicts take the form of opposing ideologies: America and the West versus the Nazis and, later, Communists and terrorists. The lines of good and evil are clearly drawn in her work and it is understood that good will triumph. Accordingly, her amateur heroes consistently emerge unscathed from the most danger-fraught situations, after first thwarting their professional antagonists. Above Suspicion (1941), a tale of espionage set in pre-World War II Germany and Austria, begins the roster of MacInnes novels. Her most recent, Cloak of Darkness (1982), is a thriller about international terrorism and munitions trafficking.

While most critics praise the accuracy and detail of her narratives, many have called her characters innocuous, interchangeable, and unrealistic—types rather than individuals. Others observe, however, that her lack of introspection contributes to the light, readable pace of her books. Critics also note that MacInnes's books could be more concise, though their length derives more from her frequent digressions than from inflated writing. Because her professionalism and story telling ability are widely acknowledged and respected, it has often been suggested that she write books with a greater variety of subjects and plots. MacInnes attempted to do so in Friends and Lovers (1947) and Rest and Be Thankful (1949), but when both books received lukewarm critical reception, MacInnes returned to the formula responsible for her books being consistent best sellers.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 1; and Something about the Author, Vol. 22.)

Rose Feld

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

To say that "Above Suspicion," by Helen MacInnes, is an excellent first novel is not enough. It is a great deal more than that. It tells an exciting story with the technical smoothness of an accomplished writer; it creates a mood of suspense which carries through to the end of the volume, and it possesses what is rare in a book of this sort, a subtle note of humor which contributes to the distinction of the job….

The plot gets increasingly feverish at the end and a little incredible but it makes good reading. But convincing and real as the morning sun is the feeling Miss MacInnes has for the Germany and the Austria of pre-war days. She writes of people and places with a nostalgic knowledge and tenderness. Against the rhythmic tread of boots, of military marchers and salutes, she limns the twisted lives of simple men and women who know they are powerless to do anything but accept the rule imposed upon them. She contrasts beautifully a woman who approves the new order of things, Frau Koppler, and one who cannot, Frau Schichtl. Each leaves her mark on the destiny of the Myleses. And as excellent as her portrayal of the German people and psychology is the author's development of her two main characters, an English pair who have their own brand of humor and gayety and courage to see them through a harrowing experience.

Rose Feld, "Peril in Pre-War Germany," in New York Herald Tribune Books (© I.H.T. Corporation), July 13, 1941, p. 2.

Margaret Stern

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Above Suspicion" is another of those ingenious spy stories which are by-products of the war. The formula, though familiar, seems to have unlimited possibilities, and Miss MacInnes has turned out a first novel which moves lightly and swiftly. The impact of nazism on the easy-going world of liberalism has to some extent jarred literary production out of its self-conscious introspection to forms that are more external. It is paradoxical that it should take a war to restore a sense of the ordinary, everyday lives of men and women. But the present war does seem to have produced this effect….

The author obviously has a very definite attitude toward the régime in Germany, but her reactions remain external, never marring the sparkling surface of the narrative. So too her characters, German and English alike, are simplified black and white portraits, types that never become individuals. Only Frances Myles occasionally comes alive with a touch of feminine insight or feminine observation. But the lack of depth keeps the action moving rapidly and induces in the reader very much the same state of mind produced by a detective story. Perhaps, in the last analysis, the closest parallel is a Hitchcock film, which has the same one-dimensional portraiture, the same pervading atmosphere of suspense, the same Englishness.

Margaret Stern, in a review of "Above Suspicion," in Commonweal (copyright © 1941 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. XXXIV, No. 16, August 8, 1941, p. 378.

Rose Feld

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Again Helen MacInnes has done it and this time in a more complex and ambitious work than her first espionage novel, "Above Suspicion." The new book, "Assignment In Brittany" leaves small doubt as to her creative powers. She is more than the weaver of an exciting tale of war intrigue; she is a novelist who can hold her own on literary grounds. Her background, her characterization, her detail of plot and dialogue possess finesse and subtlety and reality. And just as she brought the feeling and atmosphere of Germany into her first book, so does she capture and translate for the reader the strength and the spirit of the land and the people of Brittany….

Brilliantly Miss MacInnes develops and expands the complexities of her plot. But even better than her plot is her description of the Breton countryside and its natives. She writes about them as one who knows them and loves them. The Corlay farm might be a place she has lived for years; the tiny seacoast hamlets with their fishermen, who were willing to risk their lives to carry the enemies of the conquering Nazis to safety, communities and people she has always known. A Frenchman could not write about them with greater personal warmth and regional design….

There is a love story woven into the tale, and wisely Miss McInnes gives it second place. But even in second place it rises to distinction by virtue of her subtle and restrained writing. And like a murmuring accompaniment to all that happens in the four weeks of Hearne's stay in Brittany is the restless ferment of a proud people who are only temporarily conquered. Before long, one is certain, the murmur will rise to a shout. "Assignment in Brittany" is more than good entertainment; it is a war book that carries the lift of faith and of ultimate victory.

Rose Feld, "Brittany Parachute Adventure," in New York Herald Tribune Books (© I.H.T. Corporation), July 12, 1942, p. 2.

John C. Cort

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Don't be scared away by the unfortunate title. "While Still We Live" … is another successful effort by Helen MacInnes, who proved in "Above Suspicion" and "Assignment in Brittany" that she has a happy flair for combining exciting fiction with her own personal war against the nazis….

You get the feeling that Miss MacInnes is straining a bit, trying to do something more important than just another good mystery thriller about fighting Hitler. For such heavy-duty stuff it doesn't appear that she has quite enough artillery. She is always intelligent and interesting—well, nearly always—but outside the heroine, who is obviously Miss MacInnes and very charming, the characters are just a little too simple, a little too much like the people you meet in good mystery thrillers.

But Miss MacInnes's talent is considerable and for a vivid picture of Polish resistance and a most sympathetic reminder of the virtues of that embattled people, we must certainly be grateful. And as for her detailed account of the activities of the Polish underground, I can only say that if it isn't actually like that, it certainly ought to be.

John C. Cort, in a review of "While Still We Live," in Commonweal (copyright © 1944 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. XL, No. 6, May 26, 1944, p. 140.

Robert W. Anderson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Miss MacInnes's narrative [in While Still We Live] does not carry much conviction or real interest, for she is working out an elaborate exposition and a rather unconvincing background of war-torn Poland. But then suddenly she doffs pretentiousness and gets down to the hunter and the hunted, a type of tale which she tells with consummate skill….

Like a well-dressed bride, Miss MacInnes's story wears something old and something new—with just enough of the new to keep the reader moving on through a great deal that has become old hat to followers of spy romances. The characters are well known and well worn, the action unashamedly melodramatic. It is a personal story of an individual's adventures, and it is at its best when it is not making pretenses at representing the indomitable spirit of the Poles. The tragedy of Poland and her people has been so expertly and vividly presented to the world by factual accounts that Miss MacInnes's somewhat generalized panorama suffers by comparison. But if you accept the novel for what it really is, a romping, melodramatic tale, there can be no quibble about its effectiveness.

Robert W. Anderson, in a review of "While Still We Live," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1944, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 173, No. 6, June, 1944, p. 129.


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Five years after its publication, this reviewer still has affection for Helen MacInnes' first novel, "Above Suspicion."… Miss MacInnes has published three novels since that event—and, in every instance, slickness has replaced real drama, and technical competence has atoned for warmth. Their author is by now a dependable performer, in The Saturday Evening Post sense of that dubious phrase….

"Horizon" is Miss MacInnes' current contribution to the still fashionable—and still perfunctory—probing of the POW's psyche, before and after his escape from the barbed wire. Peter Lennox, her hero, is one of the most taciturn Englishmen we have ever encountered in a novel. To make matters worse, virtually nothing happens to him after his carefully muted escape from an Italian prison camp in '43, and his flight to the mountains of the South Tyrol….

The author has prepared her scenery with loving care, but it is scenery without actors.

At times, "Horizon" shows signs of life—and then nose-dives into vagueness again as the novelist struggles with frustrations too heavy to handle. Dramatized in exterior terms, it might have done well as a short story. As a scamped novel, that locks itself deliberately in the brain of a dull young man, it is worse than disappointing.

James MacBride, "No Action," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1946 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 26, 1946, p. 22.


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The grace and good breeding that made other MacInnes novels a delight have gone into ["Friends and Lovers"]: but, since it lacks the suspense and the compensating psychological excitement of her earlier books, its good qualities are not quite enough to sustain its thinly plotted narrative. The author has obviously intended a touching picture rather than a profound one. The story is told almost entirely in dialogue, which affords little opportunity for probing…. As a novel, "Friends and Lovers" is talky, uneventful and pieced out with extraneous matters. As a romance, however, it should appeal to those who have won out over just such opposition and who … think that love is a serious matter. That takes in a lot of people.

Mary McGrory, "A Variety of Hammock Companions for the Late Vacationer: 'Friends and Lovers'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1947 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 17, 1947, p. 16.

George Conrad

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Helen MacInnes has published five novels of life abroad. In "Rest and Be Thankful" she not only taps the American scene for the first time but seeks the very essence of it in the cattle lands of Wyoming. To that end she has shaped a story with precision, fine tolerance and manifest skill. If it displays more facility than force, and is sometimes tentative when it should have been trenchant, one must admire her resolution in the choice of theme. This was not a lazy self-assignment.

What the author has undertaken is a sharp, ironic juxtaposition of Eastern culture and Western customs, not only in relation to each other but in contrast with European life. In passages of barbed humor, weathered wranglers and hard-muscled ranch owners take the measure of literary drones and novelists in embryo. Here is a precise differentiation between breeding as applied to manners and breeding as applied to steers. What is mainly lacking is a boiling point; the novel does not stir the pulse because it does not reach the bedrock of reality….

Miss MacInnes does not get much beneath the surface of most of her characters…. Possibly "Rest and Be Thankful" is a bit too concerned with the tea-cozy relationship of two heroines for whom life is so nicely smoothed. Next time, perhaps, the brew will be stronger.

George Conrad, "World Travelers in Wyoming," in New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation), August 7, 1949, p. 7.

Constance Morgan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[I And My True Love] is a smooth, readable story of love and espionage in contemporary Washington. It is so contemporary that one would not be too surprised to find any or all of the plot's many ingredients in today's headlines, and the characters are neatly chosen for a combination of plausibility plus drama. Start with a member of a Czechoslovakian mission who returns from behind the Iron Curtain to revive a love affair with the beautiful wife of a consultant to the State Department. Juxtapose against this triangle a young niece from California and a lieutenant from Korea. Flank them all with solid friends on the one hand, and sharp, untrustworthy young men on the other, and you have provided your reader with...

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Robert Phelps

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

An exceptional suspense story is always a matter of how it's told, of the fine art of unravelling—if that word doesn't impute too haphazard a character to a process that is very precisely controlled; and no one in the business today knows and practices its secrets with more finesse than Helen MacInnes.

The scene of ["Decision at Delphi"] is Greece, and the goings-on have to do with an extreme anarchist minority, whose leader, an ex-guerrilla fighter, known only as Odysseus, is plotting an assassination which could lead to political chaos. But a former comrade, Stephanos Kladas, has photographic evidence which will identify him, and is smuggling it into Greece in the luggage of Kenneth Strang, an unsuspecting young American assigned to sketch Greek ruins for a travel magazine. When Stephanos disappears, Kenneth becomes involved, and it is then that Miss MacInnes' technique takes over, teasing and tautening the suspense until almost the final page.

Characterization under such circumstances is relatively unimportant; indeed, anything very interesting in itself would only get in the way. So Kenneth is a nice, intelligent, hard-working hero, an architect who is enough of a poet-maverick to prefer free-lance illustrating to designing office buildings, and boyishly manly in the way ladies love to imagine men to be, and in which they almost invariably are not….

The remaining personae and situations are standard: the masterful police inspector, the shady travel agent, the stuffy British diplomat and his indiscreet wife; a beautiful dark girl who dashes in and out with flurried warnings, and a mysterious white yacht which meets an American ocean liner at Gibraltar and carries away certain even more mysterious passengers; and of course murder, kidnaping, secretly delivered letters, shadowing policemen, and enough puzzled, questioning dialogue to make it all sound like a quiz show much of the time.

To all of this, Miss MacInnes also has added a glamorous gratuity: landscapes from Taormina to Sparta, all freshly observed and deftly sketched into the background….

Robert Phelps, "Suspense Artist at Work," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), October 30, 1960, p. 12.

John L. Brown

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Helen MacInnes has been providing literate entertainment for readers who fancy cultured British chat with their manslaughter. Her formula has seldom varied: civilized travelogue plus melodramatic espionage plus a generous dusting of powdered-sugar sex. In her later books (has she been told that readers of thrillers want lots and lots of action?) this basic plot has sometimes grown so complicated that one is hard put to figure out the details. "The Venetian Affair" is a case in point. Despite a straightforward beginning, the intrigue soon becomes as ingeniously convoluted as a baroque facade….

Devotees of this author's work will know how to skip the purple patches, the political sermonizing, most of...

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Jane Southern

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Helen MacInnes has written a new novel of international espionage and has called it "The Venetian Affair." It starts in Paris and ends where the title promises. It involves a divorced drama critic and a pretty young widow, experiencing the less sordid thrills of the Cold War, and takes them to many places of interest, two or three good restaurants, and more than one dark alley. The widow has tasteful clothes, and the critic possesses more intelligence and courage than is usual for his profession. This is probably all the information that a great many readers will require. The brand name is on the package, and it would be churlish to examine the contents before purchase.

However, Miss MacInnes' status...

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Robert Neville

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It ought to surprise no veteran reader of spy stories that in Helen MacInnes's latest book ["The Double Image"] American, British and French counterintelligence (assisted by the Greeks) is still struggling valiantly against the machinations of a resourceful, far-flung Soviet espionage apparatus. For a while the numerous knock-out blows, abductions and murders are even-handed, but in the end the Allied agents prove their mettle and track down their prey. Yet another victory is chalked up for the Free World.

In other words, in "Double Image" Miss MacInnes has stuck close to the tried-and-true formula she so successfully exploited in "The Venetian Affair." (p. 4)

As is usual with...

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P. L. Buckley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The formula for Helen MacInnes's novels, a quarter century after she began writing them and most recently in The Salzburg Connection,] remains much the same, a couple of non-professionals inveigled into taking a hand from—hold your breath—patriotic motives with the good guys against the bad, the adventure taking place in some attractive foreign part—Venice, Delphi, in this case Salzburg. In the waning days of World War II, the Nazis sank a chest containing the names of important collaborators into a remote Austrian lake and set up a ring of fanatic agents to guard it—shades of the Rheingold. Twenty years later, it is brought to the surface and everyone wants it: the Nazis, the KGB, Peking, and of...

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Josh Rubins

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The MacInnes political antennae, always tuned in to the latest international headlines, have proved more reliable than ever.

At the center of ["The Snare of the Hunter"] is writer Jaromir Kusak, a Nobel prize nominee in voluntary exile from Czechoslovakia. An amateurish but valiant Anglo-American quartet resolves to effect the reunion of Kusak with his daughter Irina—without leading the Secret Police (in hot but secretive pursuit) to the writer's Swiss hideway.

Any serious contemplation or extended examination of the mainsprings of this story's narrative would reveal gaping chasms in logic and raise foolish but fundamental questions for which Miss MacInnes furnishes no answers....

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The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Helen MacInnes's new novel [Agent in Place] opens with the theft, by Chuck Kelso, a foolish and idealistic young American, of a top-secret Nato memorandum. Part of this is leaked to the press; the far more important second half, however, falls into the hands of a Soviet agent, and the rest of the novel concerns the efforts of English, French and American intelligence departments, with some amateur assistance, to repair the huge breach that has been blown in their security. The motive behind Chuck's action is his belief that there is a need to know, a "moral obligation to publish and jolt the American people into the realities of today".

Some writers might have used the clash between two moral...

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Sara Terry

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Time and again Helen MacInnes has proved herself a master of novels of intrigue and suspense. But while she once more has employed all the ingredients that have worked so successfully for her in the past, her eighteenth book falls just short of the mark.

MacInnes novels are known for their colorful settings, tightlypaced action, and plots which dovetail neatly with the international and political headlines of the day. At least in the first and third categories, "Prelude to Terror" follows suit with its predecessors.

The plot revolves around New York art consultant Colin Grant, who is commissioned by an eccentric millionaire to purchase a Ruysdael painting at an auction in Vienna....

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Anatole Broyard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I underestimated the mystery reader, and I apologize. I realize now that it takes much more commitment—character, even—to read Miss MacInnes than it does to go through Thomas Mann or Marcel Proust. There is so much to remember that isn't memorable.

Secret drops, code names, cover techniques, labyrinthine motives, alternative procedures, espionage bureaucrats: one needs energy, patience, doggedness, a photographic memory. One needs a reason, too, not the get-away-from-it-all impulse I naïvely supposed, but the determination of a man working for a Ph.D.

Why do they do it?… Perhaps a Helen MacInnes novel is the mental equivalent of jogging.

I was struck by the...

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Newgate Callendar

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Every two or three years along comes a Helen MacInnes spy story, and just off the presses is "The Hidden Target"…. Her latest effort follows the familiar MacInnes formula.

That means spies, the good versus the bad, a clean-cut American type, an attractive female, a romance, a great deal of double-dealing, the evil Russians somewhere around, Us against Them. Why change a good formula? It so happens that in "The Hidden Target," the evil forces are exponents of international terrorism. But there are hints that the Russians are pulling the strings. Otherwise the book contains no surprises….

If the action of "The Hidden Target" is entirely predictable, it is at least a tribute to the...

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Kirkus Reviews

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Hidden Target], one of MacInnes' least persuasive efforts, hardly cried out for a sequel. But here [Cloak of Darkness] is anyway: a drab terrorist-hunt that doesn't even feature the vast scenery or the damsel-in-distress setup that made The Hidden Target fairly readable. Robert Renwick of "International Intelligence Against Terrorism" (Interintell), who saved lovely young Nina—now Mrs. Renwick—from super-terrorist Erik in The Hidden Target, is on Erik's trail again: Interintell has received information that Erik's on the loose in Africa. Furthermore, Interintell has learned that two corporations are involved in illegal arms deals—and that these villains have drawn up a...

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Michele Slung

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Helen MacInnes's novels—"Cloak of Darkness" is her 20th—every cafe and konditorei in Europe is a launching pad for terrorist activity, funded, encouraged and often directly organized by that source of all global evil, the K.G.B. The hand that brushes the Sacher torte crumbs off a lapel may shortly be carrying a Russian grenade. For many years Miss MacInnes has been the Claire Sterling of fiction; not even détente thawed her cold-war message. In "Prelude to Terror" (1978), the heroine, a Western agent, summed up the prevailing attitude: "There's a job to be done, a necessary job. Someone has to do it; we can't all sit back and watch the totalitarians take over." She goes on, "I know it has to be done. Or else...

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