Helen Macinnes: Old-Fashioned Spy Queen

From the rose garden, in the quiet of a hazy Long Island summer morning, a genteel voice with just the hint of Scotland rises above the snip-snip of the gardening shears. But the lady puttering among pink and yellow blooms is chatting cheerfully not about pruning but spies, counterspies and Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt: “Not my sort of spy.” The lady ought to know. She is novelist Helen MacInnes, and in over 30 years of writing suspense thrillers she has convinced millions of readers that she knows her secret agents.

All 16 MacInnes novels have become international best-sellers and have earned their author a respectable fortune. Her work has been translated into 22 languages, and four novels have been made into films with such stars as Joan Crawford, Fred MacMurray and Robert Vaughn. Snare of the Hunter, MacInnes’ 16th and most recent novel, has been near the top of the best-seller lists since publication last February, and it has all the hallmarks of the apparently infallible MacInnes formula. The setting is Czechoslovakia 1972, the heroine a lovely young Czech who flees to Austria and becomes the bait in a trap to snare her father, a Nobel Prize nominee in literature whom the Communists want desperately to keep behind the Iron Curtain. The intrigue surrounding her plight involves a young American music critic who once loved the girl and now risks his life to save her.

As well as being a bang-up adventure story with a more-or-less believable plot, Snare is rich in local color and ambiance, which reflects MacInnes’ special flair. Widely traveled and multilingual, she is the master of the setting, whether it is an escape route through the Alps, mapped in exact kilometers, or the brooding ruins of Delphi. Her art turns as well on what is omitted. The repartee is never racy, the love story is always gentle, terror and torture are minimal, sadism nonexistent. In Snare, the novel’s only bedroom scene is contained in one short paragraph. Novelist MacInnes intends that her fiction will stay that way. “I have no use for the play-by-play bouncing-buttocks sort of writing,” says this sixtyish lady of enormous personal sophistication. “I have never gone along with the fashion—in politics or in sex.”

The sense and sensibility of Helen MacInnes’ work is rooted in her own Presbyterian upbringing and strict Scottish education. At 17, undoubtedly a beauty, with her auburn tresses and sapphire eyes, she entered Glasgow University. There, in her first year, she met a handsome young classical scholar, Gilbert Highet. They courted for seven years—”no deviations,” he likes to say—while she earned a Master of Arts degree in French and German and he became a classics don at Oxford. In 1937, with their young son Keith, the Highets moved to New York, where Dr. Highet, at 31, became a professor at Columbia University. (Now Anthon Professor of Latin Emeritus, he is himself a distinguished author and critic, and a member of the Book-of-the-Month Club’s four-man panel of judges.)

The union of successful Highlander novelist and Lowlander professor has endured happily for 42 years. She gives him credit for pushing her into writing: “Gilbert gave me a yellow pad and two sharpened pencils and told me it was time to write that novel I’d been talking about for years.” That was 1939, when Highet went off to serve in British Army Intelligence for the duration of World War II. (The Highets became U.S. citizens in 1951.) Her first novel, Above Suspicion, became a big best-seller in 1941, and subsequently a film. The story of an innocent British couple searching for a missing agent in Nazi hands, it had its origin in the Highets’ own honeymoon trip in Germany in 1932.

Nazism and, later, Communism are ideologies against which MacInnes pits her protagonists in book after book. And she hotly defends her political moralizing: “With Snare some critics said, ‘There goes old Helen MacInnes, beating the same dead horse again.’ But I hear a great silence from those same people when poor Willy Brandt has to resign because a supposedly bona fide East German refugee turns out to be a spy. I’m not yelling return to the Cold War, but Snare came out a week after Solzhenitsyn was exiled. The predictability was a bit terrifying.”

The idea for Snare came, like many others, from the numerous newspapers she consumes daily. “I never make anything up,” she says. While her good-versus-evil themes have put off some critics, they have also won MacInnes her share of professional admirers. Says one former counterintelligence officer, “She’s very perceptive about us types. She has a gift for understanding that we’re not just machines. Prick us and we bleed like hell.”

While planting asters in the garden of her East Hampton country home—the Highets live during the university term in a gracious Park Avenue apartment—MacInnes admits that she is “plotting again.” She explains that she begins by making research notes on 3×5 cards—which may take up to a year. Once she starts to write she often works late into the night—with classical music on the stereo as constant background. “All I do is try to tell a good story,” she says modestly, declining to give a clue about her next thriller.

“Even I never know what the devil she’s writing about,” says the wry and witty Scot who is her perfect complement and greatest admirer.

“And that’s as it should be,” purrs the lady with the last word.

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