Saturday, February 13, 2010

The thrill of it all

Mum gave me a 1940s thriller for Christmas by lady novelist Helen McInnes. It was an absolute ripper and I was, well, thrilled to find a new author. I've read a few now, some I've enjoyed more than others. I'm definitely a fan of pre-Cold War thrillers: false identities, codebreaking, wireless transmitters in the dovecote and being shadowed. As I've said before, you know where you are with Nazis. To me, Cold War thrillers feature a bunch of people sitting sound a dinner table finessing and I have to say I'm simply not politically astute enough to appreciate the subtleties. Parachute me in to enemy territory any day. Favourite McInnes works include: Assigment in Brittany, Above suspicion and Pray for a brave heart. Much of the appeal is their topicality - they were written during the course of the Second World War and include criticism of the French for surrendering in the hopes of an easy life, irritation with America's naive non-interventionist policy and endings that are relatively sober - or at least as positive as they dare. The hero may escape immediate danger but there are no false hopes for his future.

Having found my favourite period I'm keen to explore more. I've just started Ashenden by Somerset Maugham. SM actually worked for the British Secret Service during the First World War and the book is a collection of loosely connected stories based on his experiences. It's a little odd in that he takes great pains in the introduction to decry literature that is true to life and lacks the storyteller's eye for a narrative arc; life, after all, is apt to be a bit messy. His stories then go on to meander somewhat pointlessly. The work of a secret agent is by its nature piecemeal, he is not always priviledged to know the full picture and can not be sure of the outcomes of his actions or the implications of the information that he passes on. So I'm sure a narrative thread will emerge at some stage but at the moment it is a simple pleasure just to spend time with him. He writes in such a liesurely way that you find yourself slowing down to meet him. I also happen to find him rather amusing. And get this for the close of a chapter, where Ashenden has just been approached to join the Secret Service:

'There's one thing I think you ought to know before you take on this job. And don't forget it. If you do well you'll get no thanks and if you get in trouble you'll get no help. Does that suit you?'
'Then I'll wish you good afternoon.'


(Incidentally, I heard there was a BBC series of this, apart from the Hitchcock adaptation The secret agent. But when I looked on Amazon all I could find was Dress your loom the Swedish way: an in depth study of time honoured techniques. Not quite what I was after. Does anyone remember the series?)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm glad Helen McInnes was a hit. Shall sesrach for more in this genre though I think I have depleted our little secondhand book store here. Travelling further afield to Port F soon so shall search there. M