Tuesday, March 18, 2014

{review} helen macinnes: the hidden target & cloak of darkness

Helen MacInnes The Hidden Target (1980)
Helen MacInnes Cloak of Darkness (1982)

I love Helen MacInnes' books, but I hadn't read (well, re-re-re-read) any for ages as they were packed in a box in the shed. Then I saw there were quite a few available for kindle -- but not, of course, the one about the hippie-trail that was teasing my memory. So, out to the shed... 


(these are the actual, badly photographed covers of my copies: 
the blueish one is foil-striped in silver, blue and white. 
These books have smallest writing I have read for years. 
Almost smaller than this writing...)

These two are actually part of a trilogy featuring the same character, Robert Renwick, and it is probably worth reading them in order, but as a re-reader I didn't feel it mattered this time around. The first one in the trilogy (Prelude to Terror) is very good indeed and has that amazing chest-squeezing mix of espionage terror and romantic torment that MacInnes is magnificent about carrying off. You're never quite sure with MacInnes about whether her protagonists will make it to a happy ending, and she is good at revealing glimpses of absolute darkness that wrack up the tension for the reader. 

Robert Renwick is one of the sort of old-school espionage champs that you really want on your side if you are stuck in the middle of Europe somewhere and something bad is going down. Because the books are set at the end of the 70s and early 80s there's still enough good ol' Cold War villainy around (and some leftovers of WW2), as well as problems with travelling through the continent (anyone nostalgic for when everyone had a different currency? - no, personally not), crossing all those frontiers, and just getting everywhere SO SLOWLY. Then there's the leftovers of the 70s to play with: relics of Baader-Meinhof and anarchists and terrorists plus NATO and Interpol and so on. 

Renwick, American but mostly Europe-based, has set up an agency, tacitly supported by various western intelligence organizations, to gather and analyse intel on terrorism which can then be sent to the relevant agencies. But Renwick is unable to shake off his field agent past, and always ends up out in the field and in great danger. He is a brilliant analyst and it is remarkable that his omniscience never makes one want to shake him until his teeth rattle: he just comes across as remarkably good at his job. 

I love these sort of 'hunt down the baddie' books where there's a real lo-tech feel: no pulling up a satellite -- you've got to get off your bum and go to deepest where-ever and use your binoculars and your bare hands. 

MacInnes is great on detail: in Prelude to Terror, there's a great art history plot going on under all the spy stuff, and plenty of lovely spots like Vienna take centre stage. In The Hidden Target we set off on the hippie-trail from Amsterdam, across Europe, Turkey and over to India in a camper (my idea of hell) with a very smart young woman who finds herself rapidly out of her depth -- could she really be the unwitting companion of one of the most dangerous terrorists of the time, and why does he need her? And in Cloak of Darkness we jump from the Africa to the US then Europe in a race against time to save Renwick from assassination by mysterious forces intent on trafficking weapons to anyone who can pay. Renwick is supported by some great colleagues, and there is always the well-planted seed in MacInnes' plots that someone here is not all they seem. 

If you're looking for a classic go at Cold War espionage, then she's well worth a read. You have to take on board that women -- despite female authorship -- have relatively secondary roles and often these are painfully traditional (they are pretty and they need saving, for instance), but certainly in the trilogy some of the woman do have significant roles in the plot (as they do in other of MacInnes' books). The Hidden Target is the most appealing in that sense, and also I think for its really varied scene-setting. It is also fascinating because it is set at a time when the hippie-trail is breaking down: the route is by the end of the 70s particularly dangerous, indeed deadly in parts, and the Afghanistan region is about to entirely disintegrate as the Russians move in. The (presumed) innocence of earlier journeys has been lost forever. 

Surely the hippie-trail is due a revival as a narrative theme: or have I missed this? There is one book that I would compare with The Hidden Target in this regard and that is Charles Mccarry's brilliant take (and astonishingly accomplished debut novel) on a carload of are-they-aren't-they-spies travelling from Europe to the Sudan in the 50s in The Miernik Dossier, one of the best spy stories I have ever read (his Tears of Autumn could well qualify as the best).

Anyway...: Helen MacInnes - great spy-craft, great settings, a spot of romance (but not as soft or happy as Mary Stewart, for instance), and that slight ambiguity about whether good really ever fully vanquishes evil without itself becoming tainted. 

26 comments:

  1. This is a name I know, but have never read - in fact, I vaguely associated her name with Gothic romances. I do love a good spy story, so I may look for something of hers when the TBR dare is over. Though hopefully I can find books with larger print :)

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    1. She's worth rediscovering, Lisa - some of her books have a real Mary Stewart-ish feel to them with the mix of romance and adventure -- though she is rather moodier and sometimes you wonder if there will be a happy endings. I read a lot of Alistair Maclean at the same time I was reading these for the first time, and he is also worth a read, I think.

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  2. Vicki there's a lot here to take on board.
    Bang! Our tastes collide on this type of book. I'm into espionage-spy-Cold War stuff, though in truth I seem to be talking more about reading it than actually doing so. I haven't read MacInnes yet though I'm pretty sure I have Prelude to Terror and at least one other of hers somewhere. I was unaware it was part of a trilogy so I owe to myself to track the other couple down, after I've established what I do have already! McCarry's Paul Christopher books are waiting also as I haven't yet cracked the spine on any. (Cue - for less blogging and chatting and more reading!)
    Lastly, I loathe small print, apart from my aging, fading eyesight these days, I have never liked small print the likes of which you find in old Penguins (possibly modern ones too, for all I know) - a great post, thanks.

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    1. You really MUST read some McCarry - he is amazing. He's as good as, if not better, than a great Deighton spy novel. I realised exactly how old I was getting when I opened those MacInnes books, which I'd read in my late teens, only to find that the print had got much, much smaller in the intervening years. Isn't that strange...? ;-)

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    2. I'll move him up the pile then. I'm supposed to be challenging myself to read 12 espionage-ish books this year - 1 so far!

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    3. Go on! The early ones are the best, I think - the later ones get a bit bogged down in his hero's family saga.

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  3. I think I read something by MacInnes years ago, and I do love this genre. Thanks for the recommendation!

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    1. I like the mix of adventure and a bit of romance a lot, but particularly I think they are great 'retro' reads: sort of the Homeland of their day but with excellent manners.

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  4. MacInnes was one of those names that was around when I was in my teens - I suspect one of my parents must have read her - and she sounds right up my street! I've developed quite a fondness for Cold War stuff recently, and I'm sure I've seen a few titles in charity shops - time for a quick search..... :)

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    1. MacInnes and Alistair MacLean filled all my 'capable intelligent handsome romantic spy' needs as a teen! It's hard to get a really satisfactory larger-than-life type of villain too since the end of the Cold War.

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  5. I've never read any MacInnes. I think these sound like something I'd really enjoy -- thanks for the thorough overview. Might need to check these out this summer!

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    1. They are wonderfully escapist and retro, Jeanie -- proper heroes, heroines well worth rescuing, and proper Cold War villains.

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  6. I'd always classed Helen Macinnes as 'spies and intrigue' and that really isn't me, but I'm intrigued by the setting, the spotting and the ambiguity that you mention. it might be time for me to check the library catalogue ...

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    1. These two are quite spy-y (?word!) but many of her earlier ones are much softer in focus, though it does seem a thing of hers to teeter on the edge of tragedy in all her books. Her scene-setting is always wonderfully done.

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  7. I like Helen McInnes and have read a few over the years, particularly when I was living in Greece. I love her romantic spy type of read.

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    1. She really captures a lost Europe too - when people travelled slowly and properly (and uncomfortably). It makes a good contrast with the grimness of the post-war political scene, so you feel you're getting almost a cinematic vision sometimes.

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  8. I admire and have loved Helen McInnes since my early 20s, too many decades ago to count. Her books got me out of a suicidal slump more than once, and then life was worth living again, if only I could spend a few hours in her company each evening.
    Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

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    1. There are books one turns to in times when only the comfort of an old friend will do, aren't there? Her particular blend of melancholy and hopefulness and a great distracting puzzle has always worked for me. Thanks for visiting Judith - V.

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  9. McInnes is totally new to me but these books sound delightful. I have a thing for retro spy novels -- I still have a mad crush on Modesty Blaise. Will need to look for McInnes' books as well as The Miernik Dossier.

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    1. Thank for visiting, Audra - I love a good ol' low-tech spy novel with a bit of romance. I haven't read Modesty Blaise yet, as they're hard to come by cheaply, but her adventures are on my list.

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  10. Thanks for bringing Helen MacInnes name up. I'm sure I've heard of her before this, but I never took the time to find out what she wrote.

    Sounds like she writes just the kind of Cold War spy novels I love. I really miss Cold War spy novels. I'll have to check her out, maybe this summer. She sounds like a perfect summer read.

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    1. Thanks James - her Cold War stories are a sort of slightly more gentle Deighton: the human factor gets a good look in.

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  11. I enjoy MacInnes as lot, and these two are my absolute favourites. I haven't read them in quite a long time; perhaps it is time for a reread -- your review convinces me that perhaps I won't be disappointed by reading them again, as sometimes happens with old favourites!

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    1. I think they stand up to re-reading too - partly because they're pretty complex and I could never remember that level of details, but also because of the human interest being done so well.

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  12. Charles McCarry is the best spy writer I know, so I'll take these up with pleasure. (I like his later books as well, despite, or even along with, the family saga.) I'm pleased to find someone else who knows him!

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    1. I think the Christopher family saga finally burned me out in Christopher's Ghosts, which I didn't think was as good as the previous ones. I've just re-read a few more MacInnes-es and they reinforce for me what a good detailed scene-setter she is. Her vision of 50s/60s Europe makes me want to pack my bags!

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