Oh, so retro! These Helen MacInnes thrillers were everywhere when I was a teenager — she might even be comparable to the Lee Child of the era, which says a lot about cultural changes in the last 50 years. I never read them because they moved pretty slowly and because the proportion of romance to action was low for the teenage me. But Assignment in Brittany was a laundry-room acquisition and it fit the bill perfectly when I was laid low by a migraine. (That’s the good kind of illness, when you feel too sick to do anything but lie in bed and read!)
Plot: an English military intelligence guy named Hearne parachutes into rural Brittany in 1941 to spy on German troop movements. He adopts the identity of a wounded Dunkirk evacuee, Bertrand Corlay, who is his physical double. Hearne speaks perfect French, etc. etc. and gets a complete briefing so the substitution while suspenseful is not the main motor of the plot. So far, the novel reminded me of a minor but wonderful Daphne DuMaurier called The Scapegoat: English guy drops into rural French setting and discovers that the French guy he’s pretending to be is a real jerk. The spying plot proceeds with slow, methodical detail which I quite relished, but which certainly dated the book as an entertainment. Though the biggest shock came when our hero Hearne is looking at his double Corlay’s bookshelf and says to himself, “Books are half of the man.” At which point I could not help thinking, “Not anymore, pal.”
Of course Helen MacInnes was a moonlighting librarian, married to an academic, so she would consider books an index to character. I knew that her husband was the Columbia University classicist Gilbert Highet, but I did not know until I checked Wikipedia that he had been in MI6. Nor that Assignment in Brittany “was required reading for Allied intelligence agents who were being sent to work with the French resistance against the Nazis.” Actually now that I think of it, MacInnes‘ books seem to cover a lot of the same territory as Alan Furst’s — but she’s earnestly informative, while he’s performing all those smoky, romantic riffs on the same themes.
It turns out that MacInnes‘ books are being reissued this spring in a spiffy new uniform edition. I wonder if their sincere pedantic quality and their relatively stately pace will appeal to contemporary readers. On the other hand, I can’t wait for Decision at Delphi, Message from Malaga, and the like.