Friday, December 26, 2014

Hitchcock's kind of story

I happened to finish reading Past Perfect, the 2007 novel by Susan Isaacs, soon after starting Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies, a 2008 book by Donald Spoto. So naturally I couldn't help thinking about Past Perfect as a Hitchcock movie and Katie Schottland as a Hitchcock heroine.

Spy stories, especially those in which ordinary people (often ordinary women with extraordinary beauty) get caught in dangerous situations) were a Hitchcock staple, from The 39 Steps to Torn Curtain. That's what happens in the Isaacs novel. Actually Katie had worked for the CIA, writing mostly routine reports, in her early 20s, but then 15 years ago she had been fired without explanation. Now she writes a successful television series called Spy Guys, but the unfairness of her termination still rankles. So when she gets a call from Lisa, a former CIA colleague, asking for her help and, as bait, promising to reveal the truth about why she was canned, Katie is hooked. But then Lisa never calls back.

Katie wonders if something might have happened to Lisa, but mostly she just wants to get to the bottom of her disgrace of 15 years before. So, her son off to summer camp and her husband preoccupied with his work, she begins making contact with people she worked with at the agency, including her former boss with whom, like many other women in his department, she had had a brief fling. Though a novice at actual espionage, Katie keeps digging until she uncovers the whole complicated truth, nearly at the cost of her life.

A 40-year-old Jewish mother may not seem the ideal Hitchcock leading lady, but Katie is vibrant and sexually appealing enough to have drawn the director to this story. And given his apparent delight in placing his actresses in unpleasant circumstances, such as by keeping Madeleine Carroll handcuffed to Robert Donat for long hours each day during the shooting of The 39 Steps, he might have relished the opportunity to place his Katie in some Florida brambles as she tries to elude a killer.

Susan Isaacs writes her thriller with humor and gradually building suspense. We will never discover what Hitchcock might have done with this story, but we can certainly enjoy what Isaacs does with it.

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