Friday, February 16, 2007

Book note: Above Suspicion by Helen MacInnes

One of the impossible-to-answer questions that I like to mull over is how much worse World War II might have been if authors, publishing companies, news people, and the movie industry hadn't helped keep up morale and bust enemy propaganda as much as they did (not across the board, of course, but in general).

The point comes up because this week I finished reading Above Suspicion by Helen MacInnes. My copy is a Fawcett Crest paperback, which shows copyright 1941, 1969 by Helen Highet (Highet being the author's married name). The cover painting, I might add, shows a man and woman hiding from danger in a woodland setting, and the woman is wearing a chartreuse green miniskirt and has a bouffant hairdo, which strikes me funny for a book about Europe in 1939, but I digress.

The book has gone through several printings, but I can't seem to find it currently in print, which would be a shame if true. There are quite a few used copies about, though, so it should be easy enough to find an inexpensive copy if your library doesn't have one.

On my copy, the front cover leads off with "The Famous Suspense Masterpiece by the author of MESSAGE FROM MALAGA." In the early going, I wondered where they got the idea this was a masterpiece. By the end, I still wouldn't call it a masterpiece myself, but I won't quibble with anyone else who would like to. My goodness, it was loaded, and layered, and had some very good twists and turns, and I was both surprised and pleased how it came out in the end. And this was her first novel? Wow.

What annoyed me most at first was the author's insistence on sprinkling the narration with references that clearly expected you to share her very good educational background. I got a fairly standard baby boomer education: short on literature, shallow in history, and completely lacking in architecture. While I've tried to fill in the gaps since I got out of college, I found myself on the outside looking in here and there in the early chapters.

As it happens, I came to appreciate that. Having set it up so the intellectuals and sophisticates of her day could say, with evidence to back them up, "Oh, look, James dahling, here's a book that the rabble can't possibly get as much out of as we can," she proceeds to shoot down (politely, but firmly) various varieties of sophisticated wishful thinking regarding the Nazi threat. She also stands up to anti-British propaganda. And she properly pokes holes in the Nazi idea of proper behavior. All within a lively adventure story that's lush with description without bogging down in it. And it's got some humor, too. Not a bad deal.

There were a few places where I had to stop and flip back to something I'd read earlier to make sure I knew who was who and what was what, but that might be my fault (I'm under the weather again, and hardly in top form). And there were a few places where the educating got a bit obvious. But all in all, a good book.

And, all in all, the sort of book that well-educated people tended to turn out in the 1930s and 1940s, cheering on the home folks while tackling the public's ignorance.

There was a 1943 movie based on the book, starring Fred MacMurray and Joan Crawford, with Basil Rathbone as a bad guy. In the movie, the lead characters, Richard and Frances Myles, are on their honeymoon. In the book, they've been married a few years, just long enough to have learned quite a bit about each other's strengths, weaknesses, quirks, and ways of thinking. Who knows how else the movie differs from the novel? At any rate, regardless of how true it is to the book, with that cast I'd like to see it. I haven't been able to find it on DVD anywhere yet. Anybody?


Sherry said...

I love Helen MacInnes' novels. Her later books are very anti-communist, very much set during the Cold War, pro-American, but benignly aware of America's faults and political difficulties. I place her in the same categroy with Rex Stout and Agatha Chriistie, probably not great, but very enjoyable.

Laurie said...

You've made me want to run out and get a copy. McInnes' name is so familiar to me, but I can't recall reading any of her books.

Anonymous said...

Hear, hear! I'm a die-hard MacInnes fan, and think that she really nailed the cold war mentality in her later books. I recommend "While Still We Live," about August 1939 in Warsaw. I have a hard time forgiving the Poles for the complicity with the Nazi genocide, but I do recognize the hardship they suffered, and the courage they showed, when the Nazis invaded then.

Kathryn Judson said...

Sherry, I'm a big Rex Stout fan. I hadn't thought to put him and Helen MacInnes in the same boat, but now that you mention it, it's obvious. :) (Not least because he was a blunt anti-Communist in and out of his fiction).

Laurie, I hope you enjoy it! (She might drive you a bit to distraction with her efforts to be 'modern' in this book, but I think overall her heroes and heroines are more virtuous than many fictional characters.)

Bookworm, Thanks for the recommendation. I haven't read that one.