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.