Friday, January 6, 2017

A Helen MacInnes misfire

A few years ago Titan Books, a British publisher, began reissuing the espionage thrillers written by Helen MacInnes between 1941 and 1985. This should prove a blessing to old fans wishing to read books they may have missed or wish to revisit, a new generation of readers who may never have even heard the name Helen MacInnes and those, like me, who are old enough to have read MacInnes while she was still alive but never did.

Unfortunately the first MacInnes I chose to read, I and My True Love (1953) must surely not be one of her better ones. Part love story and part spy story, it fails to give satisfaction as either.

Yet the opening chapter is masterful. Sylvia Pleydell, the unhappy wife of a government man who works with secrets every day but seems just as secretive when he is at home, comes to the Washington train station to meet Kate, a young cousin moving to town to begin work at an art gallery. Also at the station is Lt. Robert Turner, a young Army officer with a crush on the older woman who observes Sylvia's brief meeting with Jan Brovic, whom she had met and loved during the war but who had returned to Czechoslovakia, now a Communist nation. And so we are are introduced to many of the novel's main characters and get a sense of the tension, both romantic and diplomatic, to come. And yet it never really comes.

Both the love story and the spy story seems to be conveyed at a distance, as when Sylvia, in the final chapters, reads newspaper stories about Jan's return to Czechoslovakia and about hints of a scandal in the State Department, while she herself is on a train to California.

Hollywood turned several MacInnes novels into movies, but not this one. It's easy to see why.

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