Above Suspicion - Helen MacInnes

Whichever way you added up your plans, you should always leave a margin on either side for luck.

This was my first experience of MacInnes’ work and I am delighted to say that I am looking forward to reading more of her books. It appears that I have found a new series of books to sink into when I need something that is straightforward, smart entertainment now that I have finished Agatha Christie’s books. Not that MacInnes books are mysteries in the same vein as Christie’s – they are not, MacInnes wrote thrillers – but judging by this first one, they have the same atmospheric, comforting feel to them. At least, Above Suspicion gave that impression.

In this book we meet Richard and Frances Myles, an Oxford couple, who are persuaded by a friend to use their summer holiday in pre-war Germany to investigate the disappearance of an informant who helped people to flee the country in the face of the rising Nazi state.

What follows is the adventure of the couple who are acting as amateur spies. It was an addictive and thrilling read for the most part and I really enjoyed their exploits, even if some parts were showing their age.

Richard and Frances are a lovely couple. I really liked them and in some ways they reminded me of Paul Temple and his wife, Steve or Tommy and Tuppence – no longer bright young things but still with sparkle enough to not take each other too seriously all the time:

“I’ve found the difference between twenty and thirty,” said Richard. “At twenty you never think of rheumatics or a chill in the bladder.”

– – –

He grinned. “You know, Frances, just at the stage when a man thinks women have no brains they confound him by some low cunning like that.

I especially liked Frances. She was smart and I liked how MacInnes gave her inner thoughts about the state of the world that went beyond the adventures at hand.  Her thoughts matched in many respects those of the characters of another favourite pre-war author of mine, Phyllis Bottome, who also used her pre-war thrillers to describe the rise of fascism in the 1930s.

If only the methods of hate and force had been resisted at the very beginning: not by other countries for that would have been called the unwarranted interference of those who wanted to keep Germany weak), but by the people of Germany themselves! But, of course, it had been more comfortable to concentrate on their own private lives instead of dying on barricades, if in the last extreme they had had to pit force against force. It was easier to turn a deaf ear to the cries from the concentration camps, to harden their hearts to the despair of the exiles, to soothe their conscience with praise of the Fatherland. And now it had come to, the stage where other peoples would have to do the dying, on barricades of shattered cities, to stop what should have been stopped seven years ago.

And this is where the book becomes more serious than just a spy adventure. There are elements of the book that unfortunately still carry a relevant message today. There is a scene where Frances holds a discussion with a young man whose only responses are slogans and pathetic quotes that he had been fed by the propaganda peddlers around him. During the discussion with Frances, he realises for the first time that none of the answers he has make any sense, and this stumps him. It is a poignant and powerful scene, even though it is not one that is central to the plot.

With respect to the plot, this is where I have some criticism: Unfortunately, the book is a product of its time and despite the author’s efforts to give Frances a mind of her own, there is a certain plot development that sees Frances as damsel in distress. It does not do the beginning of the book justice. While I can understand why this particular plot development would have been appropriate at the time of writing, it did distract from what otherwise was a splendid, smart, and thought-provoking read.

“Don’t let the tragedy of the human race get you down at this time of the morning. Come and have some breakfast first.” He drew her gently from the window. “An empty stomach only turns thought into worry.”

Frances smiled and kissed him. “You keep worrying about me, Richard.”

“Well, whenever you start a train of thought these days, it runs non-stop to the sorrows of the world.”

“I’m sorry, Richard. I’ll give up the habit.”

“Do. It would be frightful if you ever began to enjoy it.”

Frances laughed. “A kind of mental pervert, working herself into depths of depression to enjoy her secret thrills of pity No, thank you, Richard. Instead I’ll become accustomed to the idea that man is born in pain, lives in struggle, dies in suffering.”

“Well, that’s a better defence against the new Middle Ages than the nice ideas you got from your liberal education.


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