by | Oct 11, 2022 | Mystery Minute | 9 comments

It All Started on a Honeymoon

by Z.J. Czupor

Helen MacInnes’s first novel, Above Suspicion (1941), is based loosely on her own honeymoon in Bavaria when she encountered German Nazi atrocities. She took extensive notes and swore that one day she would write against the oppression of the Nazi government and its exploitive empire. 

Helen MacInnes

Those notes would form the hide and seek plot of her debut novel in which two married academics vacation in pre-war Europe in 1939. They are recruited to find a missing spy in Nazi territory where nobody is above suspicion. The New York Times likened her novel to a “Hitchcock thriller.” In 1943, the novel was adapted into a movie of the same name starring Joan Crawford and Fred MacMurray. The film’s promotional tagline was “It happened on a honeymoon.”

The U.K.’s Daily Sunday Express dubbed MacInnes “the queen of spy writers” after her novel The Salzburg Connection (1968) was adapted into film. In her nearly 50-year writing career, she produced twenty-one novels of suspense, espionage, and intrigue, sold 23 million copies, and her books were translated into twenty-two languages. According to a 1974 People Magazine article, sixteen of her novels made international bestsellers list, and four were adapted into film.

Literary critics often compared her to Graham Greene (1904-1991) and Ian Fleming (1908-1964). In 1970, Alistair Maclean (1922-1987), a Scottish thriller novelist, praised her as “Original. No one writing today creates more realistic, more credible characters than she does.”

Former CIA Director Allen Dulles (1893-1969) echoed those sentiments calling her “a natural master of the thriller” and included a selection from her second book, Assignment in Brittany (1942), in his anthology Great Spy Stories from Fiction (1968).

Because she had described the people, their history, and the country in such detail, Assignment in Brittany was required reading for Allied intelligence agents who were sent to assist the French resistance against the Nazis. The story was set early in World War II in which a British spy is a doppelgänger for an injured Frenchman who he interviews in the hospital to find out what the Germans were planning against Britain. But the Frenchman leaves out some key details which puts the British agent’s life in jeopardy. MacInnes wrote:

He stared at the unfamiliar watch on his wrist. Three hours ago, he had stood on English soil. Three hours ago, he had been Martin Hearne, British Intelligence agent. Now he was in Nazi-occupied Brittany, posing as Bertrand Corlay, with the Frenchman’s life reduced to headings in his memory.

Hearne looked down at the faded uniform, which had once been Corlay’s, felt once more for the papers in the inside pocket. He was ready. From now on, he was one step away from death…

Interestingly, this novel was featured on The New York Times’ first fiction bestseller list which appeared Aug. 9, 1942. MacInnes’s first two novels, which relied on contemporary events of the war, established her reputation as a master of the thriller and popular writer of spy novels.

Helen MacInnes Above Suspicion cover

Helen Clark MacInnes (1907-1985) was born in Glasgow, Scotland and in 1928 earned an MA in French and German from the University of Glasgow and a diploma in librarianship from the University College, London.

At the University of Glasgow library, she worked as a special cataloguer for the library of noted Scottish chemist John Ferguson (1838-1916). His collection of 7,500 books included books of alchemy, chemistry, medicine, mineralogy, and more in German, Latin, English, French, and Dutch. She also helped select books for county libraries. In her spare time, she played tennis, attended concerts, studied ancient handwriting, and the history of the English novel. Her love of the arts would later appear as backdrops or in dialogue in her novels. 

During this period, she met Gilbert Highet (1906-1978), who was a classics scholar, writer, and historian, but who also worked for MI6, the UK’s secret intelligence service. They married in 1932 and had one son. They moved to New York City in 1937 where he was appointed chair of Latin and Greek at Columbia University. Working together, they translated German literature which financed their summer travels through Europe. They often visited the Dolomites, the Salzburg Festival and Vienna, all places she wrote about. These adventures gave MacInnes location ideas she used as settings in her novels.

In 1939, her husband came across the diary notes MacInnes had made from their travels and encouraged her to use them as the basis for a novel. With his support she began writing seriously and continued to do so until her death. 

MacInnes’s first novel, Above Suspicion, became and remains one of her most famous. Her 1944 novel, The Unconquerable, was set in Poland in 1939, a dangerous time before the start of World War II. In the U.S., the novel was titled While We Still Live. However, because she so accurately described the Polish resistance some reviewers and readers assumed she was relying on classified information provided to her by her husband. 

She eschewed anyone who claimed she was a resistance fighter during World War II or that she engaged in counterespionage against the Soviet Union. She said, “I’m against totalitarians in general—national or religious, extremists of the right or left.” 

She also asked the rhetorical question: “Does a novelist have to commit murder before he can portray a murderer?” In her defense, she said she relied on instinct and a creative imagination “to supply what experience cannot” and combined that with rigorous research. “There is no room for imagination in composing a factual background,” she said.

Helen MacInnes Above Suspicion movie adaption

During her career, MacInnes was ranked as one of the most successful modern women writers of suspense, espionage, and conspiracy. While her books are still in print, she seems to have been forgotten and overlooked. For some reason, she’s never received the accolades or attention of her male colleagues noted for their spy fiction, writers such as Ian Fleming, John Le Carre, Graham Greene, or Robert Ludlum.

Fortunately, in 2012, Titan Books reissued her original spy thrillers. Katy Wild, editorial director of Titan Books said, “I have loved Helen MacInnes’s novels all my life. They are exciting stories, immaculately researched, but with immense integrity and heart. I always felt that she has been unfairly neglected in the revival of interest in the classic spy thriller genre, so I was delighted when I was able to enter into an agreement with her descendants. Our agreement with them will enable us to bring the books back into print and e-book formats and show readers what they’ve been missing all these years.” 

In 1968, she pivoted from spy novels to write a comedic play, Home is the Hunter. The two-act spoof is an action-packed romp set in 1177 B.C. where Ulysses returns to his home in Greece from the Trojan Wars. 

MacInnes’s literary style involved strong ordinary characters—professors, architects, lawyers, or historians—who become accidentally involved in espionage in exotic European settings. She spiced her stories with adventure and romance and unraveled clues and details little by little. She also meticulously researched her settings’ history, culture, politics, religion, and geography which painted her plots of international espionage with integrity. 

MacInnes once said of her work, “A peaceful country needs a good intelligence service. Freedom will not survive unless we know the nature of the attack on it. That is what my books are all about.”

Her husband died in 1978. MacInnes died in 1985 at the age of 77, three weeks after suffering a stroke in New York City. The week she died, her last novel Ride a Pale Horse (1984), made its first appearance on The New York Times bestseller list.

Author’s Notes:

Although MacInnes was a perennial bestselling author she only won one literary award: the Columbia Prize for Literature (1966) from Iona University in New Rochelle, New York.

MacInnes is credited with the popular quotation: “He who expects the worst won’t be disappointed.” (From Assignment in Brittany) 

MacInnes was born to Donald and Jessica Sutherland McInnes but adopted the variant spelling of her surname.

In addition to his career as a university professor, Gilbert Highet published essays and books, hosted his own radio program on WQXR in New York City reading his essays on general culture, judged the Book-of-the-Month Club, and served on the editorial board of Horizon magazine. As a colonel in British Intelligence (MI6), his true role before and during World War II has never been revealed, but it is suspected he contributed to breaking German codes for ULTRA, the British military intelligence’s wartime service which deciphered high-level encrypted enemy radio and teleprinter communications.

The New York Times’ first published bestseller list that was driven by national data (Aug. 9, 1942) featured a chart of 17 fiction novels based on sales reports from booksellers in 14 cities. Other notable authors on this first list with MacInnes’s Assignment in Brittany included John Steinbeck’s (1902-1968) The Moon is Down and W. Somerset Maugham’s (1874-1965) The Hour Before the Dawn. Technically, the Times’ first bestseller list was published Oct. 12, 1931, in which five fiction and four non-fiction books were listed but only of books sold in New York City.

Z.J. Czupor is president of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and past Vice President of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of Mystery Writers of America (RMMWA). In addition to writing monthly columns for Rogue Women Writers and RMMWA, he is the author of THE BIG WEIRD: Haikus in Times of Pandemic and Chaos, available at Amazon.

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  1. Karna Small Bodman

    I so enjoy these “Mystery Minutes” where I learn about many terrific authors and can go back and read stories I have missed in the past. About Helen MacInnes — she truly was a great thriller writer – I seem to recall seeing that Joan Crawford movie on TCM some time back. Thanks for a great post!

    • ZJ Czupor

      Thank you Karna. Glad to know you enjoy the MM stories.

  2. Jenny Milchman

    What a far-ranging career and lasting legacy MacInnes had, more timely than ever now. Thanks for this deep analysis of her life and work.

    • ZJ Czupor

      Thanks Jenny. She was a fascinating woman and skilled writer.

  3. Lisa Black

    ZJ I think you and I have a lot of the same tastes. I absolutely adored Helen MacInnes and read everything of hers I could find. I think my favorite was Message from Malaga, which instilled in me the determination to see the Parthenon. Thirty years later I finally did! Though not at night. And not under enemy fire (thank heavens!).

    • ZJ Czupor

      Lisa, your breadth and depth of reading classic mystery and thriller writers never ceases to amaze me. Helen MacInnes was the real deal and in control of her craft. Unfortunate she never received the accolades she deserved. And, like you, I also saw the Parthenon in the light of day and in peacetime. Lucky us.

  4. Keith Raffel

    Why not name the International Thriller Writers Awards the Helen Macs after her?

  5. Priscilla Paton

    Thank you! Fascinating to hear about a writer whose research was a “life and death” matter.

  6. Chris Goff

    Helen MacInnes was one of my favorite authors as a young teen. I loved her books, and find it interesting to note that she never did become as well-known to thriller readers as her male colleagues. And, yet, she wrote incredible fiction, some that surpassed that of men. I hope this inspires others to go back and read her books. I know I’ll be rereading them!