The moment I received Above Suspicion and Pray For a Brave Heart, two espionage novels by Helen MacInnes re-released by Titan Books last year, I had a considerable number of doubts. Spy books are not my niche in the first place, and especially not terrible ones. My gut told me with dismay that this book had the makings of an unremarkable one: probably revolving around a James Bond knock-of, with just enough action to prevent the reader from banging their head against a wall repeatedly. Without reading the first pages, I already contemplated what would be a better usage if it proved a disappointment: kindling or emergency tissue paper?
But am I glad I put differences aside, because between the pages I found a thriller story, one that kept me on the edge of my seat and up until the early hours of the night devotedly reading (I’ve even got the baggy eyelids to prove it). And what’s more, I discovered what is possibly the most underrated spy writer of the twentieth-century: Helen MacInnes. It did have its faults, but if one overlooks them, they find quality entertainment and heart-stopping escapes, with a dash of sarcasm to keep the blood flowing.The first novel, Above Suspicion, was originally published in 1941. It features a couple, Richard and Frances Myles, who are about to embark on a European vacation. All is well, for the most part, and life-threatening adventures are the least of their worries. While making final preparations, they are visited by an old friend named Peter Gait. He has a job for them, which they agree to with some degree of confusion: it is to start their vacation in Paris, meet a man there, and then continue on with their vacation as planned. But all is not well in Europe, as pre-war atmosphere rises. Strange figures begin to follow their every movement, and their intentions are not of good will. Soon, the couple finds themselves on the run; they must plan each action carefully, or risk certain death.
My thoughts towards this book were well-meaning. As far as action novels go, hers was not the worst I’ve read. If I have a complaint, it is that the dialogue became too weighed down with adverbs to the point where the story’s plot was hard to follow. This was one of her earlier novels, however, and so I do allow for a bit of lenience: a great writer is something that develops over time, and this was not the worst mistake a debuting author could have made. And perhaps some of my confusion came due to a generation gap; I understand that in 1941, the slang was quite different from the ones in 2013. Writing styles, as well, have developed with slight changes. While seventy years ago, details were intriguing things and meant to be spread over pages, our generation tends to favor a quick two-paragraph delve into details and let that be the end of it.
Besides the matter of overused adverbs. it was an enjoyable read.The action alone was enough to forgive its faults! I found myself right along Frances and Richard as a backseat driver of sorts (though I am sane enough to realize they could not hear my instruction). Forget action movies– pick up one of these babies and it delivers that and more! And, as these things tend to go, as MacInnes’ writing polished, so her prowess in the thriller novels grew. Which brings us to Pray For a Brave Heart, another novel re-released by Titan and my favorite out of the two.
This novel follows the character William “Bill” Denning, a man of the army who had worked with the Restitution of Property division of Berlin during and after World War II. While packing his bags for the United States, where he expects to cut his ties from the army, an old accomplice knocks on his door and offers a proposal. Here’s the gist: recon has just picked up news about an unsolved jewelry thief setting his roots in Switzerland. Since Bill’s terminal leave is in Switzerland, this would be the perfect opportunity to squeeze one last mission under his belt before ending his career. After much prompting, Denning agrees.
The novel’s lighthearted scheme turns serious as the plot progresses: all is not well in Switzerland with a criminal on the loose. As Denning and his accomplices draw closer to cracking he case and recovering the jewelry, the mystery thief increases in cunning. Danger rears its ugly head, and it takes the death of a close friend to set the action into full swing. And once it goes, there is nothing that stops it. Nothing until he recovers the jewelry. If he manages to without dying himself.
What lagged in Above Suspicion picked up speed in Pray for A Brave Heart; the adverbs dwindled until they were sparse — though I would have preferred if she cut back a tad more– and the dialogue only improved. A bonus is the keen sense of humor the author has picked up in the decade that separates the two books. Bill Denning’s sharp tongue and perchance for cynicism had me laughing out loud– and that, I assure you, is a rarity. Given that the book was written over a half-century ago, there is something to be said for her timeless humor style. It takes a seasoned writer to write witty dialogue that withstands the decades.
If I had a complaint in this book, it was this: the creativity could have been improved. I found myself catching plot points in Pray for a Brave Heart that had been recognized in Above Suspicion: a fellow about to leave on a place they are excited to go to, when suddenly an old acquaintance shows his face and drags the main character into a dangerous situation? It was too familiar for my taste. However, there were enough differences to keep it interesting without feeling forced. I only wished that she had shown more originality with her tremendous writing skills.
The cover art was modern, yet with a cold classiness that fit both novels– I tried to find a source on the illustrator, but none could be found. Nevertheless, when covers can either make or break the selling of a book, these are not a deterrent.
Long article made short, the novels are worth a read for the avid spy fan, or for those who long for a chuckle now and then while simultaneously being floored at action sequences that spark a sense of intrigue.