Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Above Suspicion by Helen MacInnes

I'm always on the lookout for new authors--I think I must be afraid I've already exhausted the world's supply of books--and so when I saw the Helen MacInnes book Above Suspicion recommended by someone trustworthy, it was with me but the work of a moment to dash off to the library for it.

This was MacInnes's first book, published in 1941, and it's a quick read, still a little raw in places. In tone it is similar to, but not as well-written as, the works of Mary Stewart--although MacInnes's earnestness is far preferable to what in Mary Stewart's works approaches shallow facility.

Above Suspicion is set in the months before World War II. Richard Myles, an Oxford don, and his wife Frances are asked to carry out a secret mission during their yearly trip mountain-climbing in the Tyrol. Posing as harmless tourists, they work their way through southern Germany in search of an English agent at the head of a spy network who has recently begun sending misleading information. The plot then proceeds on the usual terms: at first the job seems easily handled, and although the Nazis consider the Myleses highly suspicious they haven't anything definite. Then suddenly everything goes south, and there is a tense passage culminating in fire and flight by midnight. There's nothing much out of the ordinary in this book--it's just an enjoyable WWII spy story.

There are some interesting quirks to this writer, however. Helen MacInnes isn't the greatest stylist the world has ever seen, but she has and often uses the knack all good writers have of conjuring up a detailed scene or a complex mood in just a few words. In addition there's a certain emotional drive to the book: a sense that the author is still very indignant about the war. The characters often pause to speak passionately and even a bitterly about the Nazi hubris that's driving so many people to destruction and this otherwise lighthearted spy story is overshadowed by a cloud of desperation and despair that grows ever heavier until the end.

Before I finish, I have to mention one aspect of the book which I really enjoyed. Are you tired of the modern heroine always knowing better than the men in her life, and making sure she always lets them know--early and often--what she thinks of their silly ideas? Then you are going to deeply appreciate passages like the following, which are sprinkled lavishly throughout the book:

Frances wondered why Richard was so confident that there were only two men to worry about...But his eyes were fixed on the road. She sat beside him and waited in silence. She felt she had made enough wifely objections to last for the next few hours. After all, she had insisted on coming. Richard had been against it. Wifely objections would only be doubly irritating.

Now there's something you rarely ever come across--a book by a woman, mostly about a woman, who decides to hold her tongue. That alone makes me glad I read Above Suspicion.


Anonymous said...

(This really isn't an attempt to get into an argument, I promise.) What books are you referring to when you talk about the modern heroine 'always knowing better than the men in her life, and making sure she always lets them know--early and often--what she thinks of their silly ideas?' I've been trying to think of any and have failed. Hermione's the only one I can think of (but in her case it's understandable, given how pigheaded her companions are). Did you have any examples in mind?

Suzannah said...

Blogspot ate my comment! Argh! :)

I am not so much referring to books, as I usually try to avoid more recent works. But I did have some specific movie and TV examples in mind. Hermione is an EXCELLENT example of the thing I mean. Yes, she's bossy, but the males around her are just so pig-headed that someone has to take the lead, right? In justifying feminine bossiness, people usually resort to making their male characters weak and incompetent (e.g. Sarah vis-a-vis Chuck from "Chuck"), weak and cowardly (Marian vis-a-vis her father and most other men in the completely awful BBC "Robin Hood") pig-headed and drugged with testosterone (Susan and Lucy vis-a-vis Peter and Caspian from Movie "Prince Caspian") and so on. Less obvious but just as much of a problem are those situations of positive discrimination where all the villains are men and all the good guys are women (the CIA in the 'Bourne' films), where rule-breaking and contempt of *perfectly legitimate* authority is portrayed as heroic, &c.

So I really loved "Above Suspicion." As it transpires, Richard isn't pig-headed or weak. He actually has good reasons for what he does, and Frances knows that even if she doesn't know his reasons, she can safely trust him. In addition, even if his reasons aren't completely water-tight, she ALSO values the happiness and security of her marriage and her husband above making sure her opinions are heard.

These days we get a really clear picture from storytellers of what relationships between men and women should look like: the men should look immature, and the women should look a lot wiser by comparison. They clearly deserve to be the leaders.

This picture is a deliberate challenge to the idea of wise male authority. And of course you know my views on that.

Anonymous said...

I haven't come across that so much in books (or at least, not the books I like to read) apart from Hermione. And I do think she is justified in being bossy in her case. BUT I also think JK Rowling wrote Harry and Ron really badly. They are irritating and immature. I don't think this was Rowling's intention (she seems to think Harry is amazing), but more an example of badly written and edited writing.

I can see, however, what you're getting at with movies/TV. I haven't seen the BBC Robin Hood or Chuck, but Prince Caspian was horrendous (and the creators admitted as much). I just think that you should avoid making sweeping statements about the 'modern heroine'—if everyone truly admired bossy women and weak men, then Prince Caspian would have been well-received, and books would be full of boring men and headstrong women. They're not.

You know where that kind of ideal is perpetrated? Advertisements on TV! Men are portrayed as bumbling idiots and women as tired martyrs who need multiple pills and beauty products to stay alive. Yuck.

Anyway, I'll have to look up 'Above Suspicion'. Weakness and stupidity are not gender-specific traits, and it annoys me when they're assigned to either sex.

Anonymous said...

I've read most of the books by MacInnes, & think she develops nicely as a writer. I'm not an expert on writing books, but am a lifelong reader. I would suggest you read some of her later books. They are so much better written than most modern books, & do have plot twists that are unexpected.

This is posted with the disclaimer that it is light reading, which I need at the end of the day!

Suzannah said...

I should definitely investigate MacInnes further when I have the chance. Light reading is a lovesome thing :)

Anonymous said...

I found this on Open Library, and am currently devouring it. Thank you for the recommendation!


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