Helen McInnes, Above Suspicion (1941)

I first heard about McInnes thanks to Danielle: I was in the mood for some classic spying books, and Danielle provided a great list. I got myself a free copy of Above Suspicion from Bookmooch, and it came under the form of a 1963 yellowing US edition in paperback (priced 50c.!) from… Iran. If only this book could talk, to tell me how it had travelled from the US to Iran and now to France, and tell me all what it saw from the 1960s to this day! I thought it a good news that in Iran someone has read this book which is, if not a propaganda novel (it was published during the war), but as close as a contemporary anti-Nazi manifesto as you can get.

Anyway, Above Suspicion was highly entertaining. Whenever it is as a spying classics, you could probably think Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers as a parallel in mystery classics, and probably forget everything about Cold War bleak novels from John Le Carré. This is a cozy book, and even if there are twists and turns, you never quite doubt that there will be a happy ending to the adventures of Frances and Richard Myles. Violence is minimal, and the Nazi baddies remain rather civilized and polite, all things considering. The 1963 paperback claiming that McInnes, “as a master of the sinister (…) ranks with Graham Greene and Alfred Hitchcock”, is a bit dated and exagerated, but it doesn’t make her first novel worthless.

Richard Myles and his wife Frances are enjoying a quiet academic life in Oxford in 1939. But a friend of theirs convince them to use their annual holidays on the continent to do some spying on the side. They are to follow signs from a Paris contact on to Germany and Austria, with the hope to reach an undercover British agent that has gone awol for some time. Clearly the plausability of all this little adventure is not McInnes’ forte, but the good point is to send two genteel, culturally aware British spying  amateurs to witness how Europe is behaving just minutes (ok, months) away from the impending war.

Everyone in the Oxford crowd and in Europe is aware that a war is somehow unavoidable, but some cling to peace hopes (“one war in a lifetime is enough”) and try to see Nazis as regular, proper guys erring on the strict side. McInnes proceeds to show how Austrians are not really satisfied of their integration into the Nazi “motherland”, and to demonstrate that British (and Americans) can’t just turn a blind eye on the events, because sooner or later Nazi Germany will want to expand its domination everywhere. The demonstration is not too heavy-handed considering the publishing date, and I appreciated that not all Germans and Austrians are not stupid Nazi brutes like in the worst of propaganda literature. The spying part is a bit of a cardboard setting and quite a lot is cliché (no gritty realism, but the author in her introduction swears that all the locations are truthful!), but the pace is good and upbeat.


One thought on “Helen McInnes, Above Suspicion (1941)

  1. I’m glad you enjoyed this. I like the idea of a cozy spy novel actually. I do like gritty realism, too, but somehow there is added appeal that you know it’s not going to be too nasty! I still must find the chance to read it–I’ve not made much progress lately with my season of spies!

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