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. 

{READ IN 2018}

  • FEBRUARY
  • 30.
  • 29.
  • 28.
  • 27.
  • 26. The Grave's a Fine & Private Place - Alan Bradley
  • 25. This is What Happened - Mick Herron
  • 24. London Rules - Mick Herron
  • 23. The Third Eye - Ethel Lina White
  • 22. Thrice the Brindled Cat Hath Mewed - Alan Bradley
  • 21. As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust - Alan Bradley
  • 20. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches - Alan Bradley
  • 19. Speaking from Among the Bones - Alan Bradley
  • JANUARY
  • 18. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine - Gail Honeyman
  • 17. Miss Ranskill Comes Home - Barbara Euphan Todd
  • 16. The Long Arm of the Law - Martin Edwards (ed.)
  • 15. Nobody Walks - Mick Herron
  • 14. The Talented Mr Ripley - Patricia Highsmith
  • 13. Portrait of a Murderer - Anthony Gilbert
  • 12. Murder is a Waiting Game - Anthony Gilbert
  • 11. Tenant for the Tomb - Anthony Gilbert
  • 10. Death Wears a Mask - Anthony Gilbert
  • 9. Night Encounter - Anthony Gilbert
  • 8. The Visitor - Anthony Gilbert
  • 7. The Looking Glass Murder - Anthony Gilbert
  • 6. The Voice - Anthony Gilbert
  • 5. The Fingerprint - Anthony Gilbert
  • 4. Ring for a Noose - Anthony Gilbert
  • 3. No Dust in the Attic - Anthony Gilbert
  • 2. Uncertain Death - Anthony Gilbert
  • 1. She Shall Died - Anthony Gilbert

{READ IN 2017}

  • DECEMBER
  • 134. Third Crime Lucky - Anthony Gilbert
  • 133. Death Takes a Wife - Anthony Gilbert
  • 132. Death Against the Clock - Anthony Gilbert
  • 131. Give Death a Name - Anthony Gilbert
  • 130. Riddle of a Lady - Anthony Gilbert
  • 129. And Death Came Too - Anthony Gilbert
  • 128. Snake in the Grass - Anthony Gilbert
  • 127. Footsteps Behind Me - Anthony Gilbert
  • 126. Miss Pinnegar Disappears - Anthony Gilbert
  • 125. Lady-Killer - Anthony Gilbert
  • 124. A Nice Cup of Tea - Anthony Gilbert
  • 123. Die in the Dark - Anthony Gilbert
  • 122. Death in the Wrong Room - Anthony Gilbert
  • 121. The Spinster's Secret - Anthony Gilbert
  • 120. Lift up the Lid - Anthony Gilbert
  • 119. Don't Open the Door - Anthony Gilbert
  • 118. The Black Stage - Anthony Gilbert
  • 117. A Spy for Mr Crook - Anthony Gilbert
  • 116. The Scarlet Button - Anthony Gilbert
  • 115. He Came by Night - Anthony Gilbert
  • 114. Something Nasty in the Woodshed - Anthony Gilbert
  • NOVEMBER
  • 113. Death in the Blackout - Anthony Gilbert
  • 112. The Woman in Red - Anthony Gilbert
  • 111. The Vanishing Corpse - Anthony Gilbert
  • 110. London Crimes - Martin Edwards (ed.)
  • 109. The Midnight Line - Anthony Gilbert
  • 108. The Clock in the Hatbox - Anthony Gilbert
  • 107. Dear Dead Woman - Anthony Gilbert
  • 106. The Bell of Death - Anthony Gilbert
  • 105. Treason in my Breast - Anthony Gilbert
  • 104. Murder has no Tongue - Anthony Gilbert
  • 103. The Man who Wasn't There - Anthony Gilbert
  • OCTOBER
  • 102. Murder by Experts - Anthony Gilbert
  • 101. The Perfect Murder Case - Christopher Bush
  • 100. The Plumley Inheritance - Christopher Bush
  • 99. Spy - Bernard Newman
  • 98. Cargo of Eagles - Margery Allingham & Philip Youngman Carter
  • 97. The Mind Readers - Margery Allingham
  • SEPTEMBER
  • 96. The China Governess - Margery Allingham
  • 95. Hide My Eyes - Margery Allingham
  • 94. The Beckoning Lady - Margery Allingham
  • 93. The Tiger in the Smoke - Margery Allingham
  • 92. More Work for the Undertaker - Margery Allingham
  • 91. Coroner's Pidgin - Margery Allingham
  • 90. Traitor's Purse - Margery Allingham
  • 89. The Fashion in Shrouds - Margery Allingham
  • 88. The Case of the Late Pig - Margery Allingham
  • 87. Dancers in Mourning - Margery Allingham
  • AUGUST
  • 86. Flowers for the Judge - Margery Allingham
  • 85. Death of a Ghost - Margery Allingham
  • 84. Sweet Danger - Margery Allingham
  • 83. Police at the Funeral - Margery Allingham
  • 82. Look to the Lady - Margery Allingham
  • 81. Mystery Mile - Margery Allingham
  • 80. The Crime at Black Dudley - Margery Allingham
  • 79. The White Cottage Mystery - Margery Allingham
  • 78. Murder Underground - Mavis Doriel Hay
  • 77. No Man's Land - David Baldacci
  • 76. The Escape - David Baldacci
  • 75. The Forgotten - David Baldacci
  • 74. Zero Day - David Baldacci
  • JULY
  • 73. Pilgrim's Rest - Patricia Wentworth
  • 72. The Case is Closed - Patricia Wentworth
  • 71. The Watersplash - Patricia Wentworth
  • 70. Lonesome Road - Patricia Wentworth
  • 69. The Listening Eye - Patricia Wentworth
  • 68. Through the Wall - Patricia Wentworth
  • 67. Out of the Past - Patricia Wentworth
  • 66. Mistress - Amanda Quick
  • 65. The Black Widow - Daniel Silva
  • 64. The Narrow - Michael Connelly
  • 63. The Poet - Michael Connelly
  • 62. The Visitor - Lee Child
  • 61. No Middle Name: The Complete Collected Jack Reacher Stories - Lee Child
  • JUNE
  • 60. The Queen's Accomplice - Susan Elia MacNeal
  • 59. Mrs Roosevelt's Confidante - Susan Elia MacNeal
  • 58. The PM's Secret Agent - Susan Elia MacNeal
  • 57. His Majesty's Hope - Susan Elia MacNeal
  • 56. Princess Elizabeth's Spy - Susan Elia MacNeal
  • 55. Mr Churchill's Secretary - Susan Elia MacNeal
  • 54. A Lesson in Secrets - Jacqueline Winspear
  • 53. Hit & Run - Lawrence Block
  • 52. Hit Parade - Lawrence Block
  • 51. Hit List - Lawrence Block
  • 50. Six Were Present - E. R. Punshon
  • 49. Triple Quest - E. R. Punshon
  • MAY
  • 48. Dark is the Clue - E. R. Punshon
  • 47. Brought to Light - E. R. Punshon
  • 46. Strange Ending - E. R. Punshon
  • 45. The Attending Truth - E. R. Punshon
  • 44. The Golden Dagger - E. R. Punshon
  • 43. The Secret Search - E. R. Punshon
  • 42. Spook Street - Mick Herron
  • 41. Real Tigers - Mick Herron
  • 40. Dead Lions - Mick Herron
  • 39. Slow Horses - Mick Herron
  • APRIL
  • 38. Everybody Always Tells - E. R. Punshon
  • 37. So Many Doors - E. R. Punshon
  • 36. The Girl with All the Gifts - M. R. Carey
  • 35. A Scream in Soho - John G. Brandon
  • 34. A Murder is Arranged - Basil Thomson
  • 33. The Milliner's Hat Mystery - Basil Thomson
  • 32. Who Killed Stella Pomeroy? - Basil Thomson
  • 31. The Dartmoor Enigma - Basil Thomson
  • 30. The Case of the Dead Diplomat - Basil Thomson
  • 29. The Case of Naomi Clynes - Basil Thomson
  • 28. Richardson Scores Again - Basil Thomson
  • 27. A Deadly Thaw - Sarah Ward
  • MARCH
  • 26. The Spy Paramount - E. Phillips Oppenheim
  • 25. The Great Impersonation - E. Phillips Oppenheim
  • 24. Ragdoll - Daniel Cole
  • 23. The Case of Sir Adam Braid - Molly Thynne
  • 22. The Ministry of Fear - Graham Greene
  • 21. The Draycott Murder Mystery - Molly Thynne
  • 20. The Murder on the Enriqueta - Molly Thynne
  • 19. The Nowhere Man - Gregg Hurwitz
  • 18. He Dies and Makes No Sign - Molly Thynne
  • FEBRUARY
  • 17. Death in the Dentist's Chair - Molly Thynne
  • 16. The Crime at the 'Noah's Ark' - Molly Thynne
  • 15. Harriet the Spy - Louise Fitzhugh
  • 14. Night School - Lee Child
  • 13. The Dancing Bear - Frances Faviell
  • 12. The Reluctant Cannibals - Ian Flitcroft
  • 11. Fear Stalks the Village - Ethel Lina White
  • 10. The Plot - Irving Wallace
  • JANUARY
  • 9. Understood Betsy - Dorothy Canfield Fisher
  • 8. Give the Devil his Due - Sulari Gentill
  • 7. A Murder Unmentioned - Sulari Gentill
  • 6. Dead Until Dark - Charlaine Harris
  • 5. Gentlemen Formerly Dressed - Sulari Gentill
  • 4. While She Sleeps - Ethel Lina White
  • 3. A Chelsea Concerto - Frances Faviell
  • 2. Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul - H. G. Wells
  • 1. Heft - Liz Moore