Books Remembered: Helen MacInnes

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


Before Robert Ludlum, there was the ‘Queen of International Espionage Fiction’: Helen MacInnes. Yet her first career could have mirrored those of her ordinary heroines caught up in the world’s events: a librarian.

Born on October 7, 1907, in Glasgow, Scotland, Helen graduated from the University of Glasgow in Scotland in 1928 with a degree in French and German. Working as a librarian, she married the classicist Gilbert Highet in 1932. Together as translators they traveled extensively throughout Europe before Gilbert was appointed Professor of Latin and Greek at Columbia University and the couple and their son moved to New York in 1937.

Over the next 45 years she would write twenty-one spy novels. Her books pitted ordinary men and women of decency and fortitude against the faceless agents of totalitarian regimes: the Nazis in the 1940s and then thereafter the Communists and their terrorist compatriots. At the time of her death on September 30, 1985, over 23 million copies of her books had been sold in United States alone.

What I think I appreciated most about Ms. MacInnes’s novels was her emphasis on the ordinary person thrust into intrigue where danger threatens the social fabric against the backdrop of international settings. However, what I thrilled to most was the romantic subplots.

Her book The Salzburg Connection (1969), which concerns an effort by various individuals to retrieve Nazi loot from an Austrian lake, has been nominated by NPR for the 100 Greatest Thrillers Ever. My personal favorite was Decision at Delphi…sigh, all those wonderful Greek archaeological sites.

What was your favorite Helen MacInnes’s book?


Roxann Delaney said...

I've never read her books, but she sounds like a fascinating woman!

Marcia King-Gamble said...

Cool. Helen sounds like the stuff novels are made of. I smell a story here.