Saturday, May 24, 2014

Ken Salikof on Helen MacInnes, Ian Fleming's Challenger




SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Delighted to introduce novelist Ken Salikof, the author of the Jackie Kennedy Spy Novels: Paris to Die For and Spy in a Little Black Dress. Today he's writing about his muse, Helen MacInnes. She may not be as well-known as Ian Fleming or John Le Carre, but Ken feels she deserves to be. Let's see why.

KEN SALIKOF: When people ask me about the inspiration for my two Jackie Kennedy spy novels, Paris to Die For and Spy in a Little Black Dress, I always reply that I wanted them to read like a novel by Helen MacInnes. 


Helen who?

Well, quite simply put, from 1941 through 1984, the Scottish-American Helen MacInnes was the queen bee of the romantic spy novel. 

To put her career in context, the 1960s was probably the golden age of the spy novel.  And the three biggest spy novelists of that period were Ian Fleming, Len Deighton and John Le Carre, all Englishmen.  Fleming died in 1963 just as Deighton and Le Carre were coming on the scene.  But his James Bond novels continued to sell because of the growing success of the movie series starring Sean Connery as Bond, James Bond.  Le Carre tilled a more literary patch with his anti-Bond hero, George Smiley, while Deighton’s nameless hero (called Harry Palmer in the movies) was a Modish reflection of Swinging London.
            
The only female writer who could challenge this young Old Boys Club was Helen MacInnes.  By the sixties, when Le Carre and Deighton were cutting their teeth, she was into her third decade as a suspense novelist.  And would go strong for two decades more before death put a stop to her career in 1985 at age 78.  Like clockwork, she would produce a new novel every two years that would automatically appear on the New York Times Bestseller List.  Today, though, she is almost totally forgotten.  But thankfully, Titan Books has seen fit to rectify this omission by reprinting her work.

The wife of a classics scholar and MI6 agent, Helen MacInnes spent her whole literary career writing romantic spy novels.  They took place all over Europe, her stories set in colorful locations that added a touristy element to her narratives.   Taken altogether, her works are intelligently written, complexly plotted (with an overemphasis on coincidence to move the story along), and feature an astute take on foreign affairs.  

 For the most part, her protagonists — always men— are members of ordinary professions (scholar, economist, lawyer) who become accidentally involved in an espionage plot and find themselves navigating an ominous new geography of duplicity and danger with the hint of death around every shadowy corner.  And, of course, there is always a woman to help the hero through this maze of deceit.  The books followed a formula, but it was one that MacInnes shrewdly made work for her.

The sweet spot for Helen MacInnes’ writing career was the 1960s — the height of the Cold War —during which she produced what is arguably her best work.  The Venetian Affair (1963), The Double Image (1966) and The Salzburg Connection (1968) are all about the legacy of World War II and the lingering fallout from the Nazis’ failed attempt to conquer the world.  In these novels, World War II still casts a giant noirish shadow over the decades following the collapse of Nazi Germany in 1945.  The first two novels take place in sunny locations—Venice, Paris and Mykonos—but there is a pervasive chill that blows through these stories, like the one that runs through the obviously more coldly climacteric Alpine setting of the third novel.

Surprisingly, for an author whose works were so popular and cinematic, only four movies were made from her books.  Her first two novels, Above Suspicion and Assignment in Brittany, both became feature films in 1943.  The former, about a honeymoon couple on a spying mission to Nazi Germany and starring the unusual combination of Fred McMurry and Joan Crawford, is almost in the same class as Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent and Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich.  

But the two movies made in the sixties are dreadful: The Venetian Affair (1967), an M-G-M programmer starring Robert Vaughn (then the star of the popular Man from U.N.C.L.E. TV series, whose episodes, coincidentally, always had the word affair in the title) and The Salzburg Connection (1972), starring Barry Newman (fresh from the cult existential road trip/car race movie, Vanishing Point).

Read together, Helen MacInnes’ novels are nothing less than an impressionistic history of the second half of the 20th century, from World War II, through the Cold War, to the first stirrings of Detente.  Her view of world affairs is not quite as dark as Le Carre’s, but is equally as well informed.  Her books are escapist literature at its best.  I envy the reader who has yet to discover her.


SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Dear Reds and lovely readers, have you ever read Helen MacInnes? 

What mystery writer do you love who you think has been overlooked by history?

             






Ken Salikof is the author of the Jackie Kennedy spy novels, Paris to Die For and Spy in a Little Black Dress, both published by Grand Central Publishing.  He is also the award-winning screenwriter of Ernest Hemingway Slept Here.  His reviews and articles about books and movie can be found in Publishers Weekly, Kirkus and the New York Daily News.


37 comments:

Edith Maxwell said...

I haven't read MacInnes, but I know my mother had her on our bookshelves groaning with crime fiction. Sounds like I have to add both MacInnes and your books, Ken, to my own groaning pile! Thanks for sharing those stories about her.

Joan Emerson said...

Oh, my goodness, this really brings back memories . . . I enjoyed reading Helen MacInnes’s books, was always excited when a new one came along . . . . I have several of her books on my Nook . . . .

Kaye Barley said...

oh, my - what fun this is! I adore Helen MacInnes and still have many of her paperbacks. And now I'm adding "Paris to Die For" and "Spy in a Little Black Dress" to my TBR pile - Thank You!

Hallie Ephron said...

Helen MacInnes? I confess to having never heard of her, but sounds like she was a pip.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Ken! SO great to see you here..and what a terrific blog!

Helen MacInnes..yes, I think so...maybe...when I was MUCH younger.But it's so tempting now..I'll go check it out. Thank yo for bringing her to Jungle Red..she sounds like she should be an honorary Rd, at least. (Though that would have meant something different to her, right?)

And wait--tell us more about YOUR books! What a fabulous idea (and so brilliant).. Were there any pitfalls or criticism from the family?

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Just heard from the Burnsworth people:

KAYE BARLEY WINS! David Burnsworth's SOUTHERN HEAT!~ (Yes, we're a tad behind on prizes here..)

Kaye, email me your address!

L.A. Confidential said...

Thank you, Hank. The books were a lot of fun to write. Jackie proved herself to be a very resourceful heroine. I don't think we were on the Kennedy family radar, so there was no criticism from the family.

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

I admit I haven't read MacInnes, but plan to rectify that...

I can attest that Ken's Jackie mysteries are really fun and well-done. We joke that Maggie Hope and Jackie would have been good friends.

Beverly Fontaine said...

I started Helen MacInnes in my teens and read every one of her books. I discovered her books accidentally while searching for Alistair Maclean on the library shelves and What a Discovery! Her books are intelligent, believable, exciting and entertaining. I was so sad when I heard the news of her death in 1978. So many of my favorite authors have passed away, most recent being Barbara Mertz/Elizabeth Peters. I am so glad I have discovered you Reds to help me continue with my mystery/thriller addiction.

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

That's it! You guys have done it! The hubby and kiddo are at the library right now, and I'm going to text them and ask them to take out a MacInnes book for me. Any particular one to start?

(I'd go myself — but I have the same horrible flu that Hallie has so I'm home in pjs.... Yes, all sympathy/pity gratefully accepted...)

Anonymous said...

I used to adore Helen MacInnes and read every one I could find. Currently I'm rereading Margaret Truman's mysteries - have done 21 so far. She was undervalued in her day... if she had not been Harry's little girl I think she might have gotten a better press! Thelma Straw in Manhattan

L.A. Confidential said...

Hi, Beverly.

Funny that you should mention Alistair Maclean. I loved his books when I was a teenager. I have very fond memories of reading The Guns of Navarone, When Eight Bells Toll and Where Eagles Dare, and loved the movies made from them. A very young Anthony Hopkins is the star of When Eight Bells Toll.

Deborah Crombie said...

Hi Ken--What a treat to think about Helen MacInnes. I loved her books--liked them much better than her male contemporaries--but I didn't know anything about her background. Now I want to go back and re-read some of them with that in mind.

I'd love to read your Jackie books, too. I can imagine she'd have been good at anything she set her mind to.

Susan, feel better, and Hallie, hope you are on the mend.

L.A. Confidential said...

Hi, Deborah. The thing about Jackie is, we started out with a wonderful real-life character, and she gave us so much to build on. It became very easy to project her into our fictional situations.

Anonymous said...

I've read every Helen MacInnes book. In fact about six months back I reread some of the early ones. This article inspired me to reread a few more. I own most of them as part of my rather large library that I'm always trying to weed out a bit. However I have a hard time letting books go.

Kathy Colclasure said...

13I've read every Helen MacInnes book. In fact about six months back I reread some of the early ones. This article inspired me to reread a few more. I own most of them as part of my rather large library that I'm always trying to weed out a bit. However I have a hard time letting books go.

Gram said...

I've loved Helen MacInnes for forever. Right now I am rereading Horizon and Assignment in Brittany and just finished Above Suspicion.

Mark Baker said...

I've never even heard of Helen MacInnes, but I think I'd like her books. It sounds like they are stand alones, is that correct? Do I need to read them in any order, or can I just pick up which ever one I find first?

As to other overlooked authors, anyone remember Dorothy Gilman? I loved her Mrs. Pollifax series, as you might guess from my blog title and user name most places.

L.A. Confidential said...

Who knew that so many people also have fond memories of reading Helen MacInnes. It's very heartening to see.

Barbara NAPW said...

Helen MacInnes wrote the first espionage story I ever read, Message from Málaga. It took place in Spain, and when I finally visited Granada, I tried to find the sites of some of the more harrowing events. I read it several times - the first when I was about twelve, and most recently about five years ago, when I was weeding out my library to make donations. Subsequently, I read almost every other one of her books, which I found as thrilling as Ludlum, as cerebral as Le Carré and as romantic as any of her female peers specializing in that genre. MacInnes, however, was far more subtle a writer - knowing that suggestions of violence and sex are all that is needed to convey the story. A certain morality and integrity, devoid of sanctimony, echoes in her best characters - influenced IMO, by the philosophy evident in the speeches and writings of Churchill and the more romantic ideals of freedom and the responsibility each individual has to his own liberty. Her Scots/American heritage probably played a huge role in forming that viewpoint. Her work was vivid and detailed, allowing the reader's imagination to smell, taste and touch and picture the locations of the stories. I am happy to learn that her books are being reissued - it will be wonderful to visit old friends. I am also going to check out the Kennedy stories - more than one of the intrepid women in MacInnes' novels bore a physical resemblance to the former First Lady...

L.A. Confidential said...

Speaking of forgotten authors, I really loved English mystery writer Joyce Porter and Dover mysteries. Dover was a truly idiosyncratic detective and his adventures were always quite funny.

Pat D said...

I started reading Helen MacInnes when I was in junior high. I probably picked up one of Mom's books. Anyway I loved her books and read them all. I even had them all in paperback for awhile. It would be interesting to read some of them again with the adult perspective I have now. Ha.

Marianne in Maine said...

She's my all-time favorite! (Sorry ladies.) I've read all her books a number of times.

The movies were truly dreadful!

I learned a lot of geography from her books. Many involved out-of-the way cabins in the Alps with the hero waiting for the evil nazis to arrive. MacInnes was great at letting the reader wonder who was good and who would turn out to be the bad guy. She's a writing icon, in my opinion.

She was married to Gilbert Highet (One of the trivial things I remember.)

I was so excited to see that the e-books are now available.

Lynn in Texas said...

Hi Ken ~ What a coincidence to find others who loved Helen. My late father-in-law's favorite authors were Helen MacInnes,John LeCarre, Ian Fleming and Frederick Forsyth. (Day of the Jackal)That's what inspired me to read more of the genre in the early '70's.

I think I'll really enjoy your Jackie series! Glad you posted today, brings back good memories!

Hope you feel better, Hallie and Susan!

L.A. Confidential said...

Thanks, Lynn. I forgot about Frederick Forsyth. He came along a little later. His first novel, Day of the Jackal, was published in 1971. But what a debut! That book is impossible to put down; even when you know the outcome of the story, the suspense is unbearable.

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Oh, LOVE Frederick Forsyth... Must reread.

Nancy Allen said...

I read some MacInnes books in my girlhood days, and now I remember why: sexy book covers! Scratching my head now--why did peril always make the lady's bodice droop on the cover art?

Reine said...

Ken, I am stunned hearing of Helen MacInnes now for the first time. So interesting that you have taken off with Jackie Kennedy as a spy of that era. How perfect! I never would have thought of it but love the idea! Wow!

Reine said...

Hallie and Susan, I hope you feel better very soon.

Beverly, what a lovely tribute to the authors...

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Nancy, that's an excellent point — perhaps we should do a post sometime on "Peril and the Drooping Bodice"?

L.A. Confidential said...

Thanks, Reine. The idea for the Jackie books only came to me because of a letter in the Kennedy library in which she wrote about the possibility of going to work for the CIA in the early 1950s. As soon as I read that, I knew I had to write a book about what might have happened had she actually gone on to become a secret agent.

Reine said...

Ken, I missed that letter when I was there... I had no idea! You are good!

Jackie Baugh said...

Helen MacInnes was a favorite back in the day, and I'm sure I read them all--perhaps it's time to re-read. A couple of my somewhat obscure favorites are the late Douglas Clark (DCI Masters) and Arthur Upfield (DI Napoleon Bonaparte - an Australian Aboriginal detective). I have all of them that I could find.

Anonymous said...

Susan, thank you for introducing me to Helen MacInnes. ironically, many people in my family loved reading her novels but I did not know that until I asked them!

Look forward to reading Helen MacInnes.

I reserved a copy of the new book about JK but the name is not Salikof on the library catalog. it is Ken M something.

I can think of several authors overlooked by history. But they are not mystery authors so I am not sure this applies here.

I loved Barbara Cartland novels at University though I cannot find any of her books in the bookstore now. I am glad I saved several of her books.

Look forward to reading Helen MacInnes and other authors, which I've never heard of.

~hmdt

L.A. Confidential said...

Hi, anonymous. The Jackie Kennedy spy novels are published under the pseudonym, "Maxine Kenneth," as requested by the publisher, hence the confusion you are having. I hope you enjoy them, along with the Helen MacInnes novels.

FChurch said...

Avid Helen MacInnes fan; have read all of her books, still have some of my favorites in paperback and hardcover. I loved that her books were literate, with a well-informed view of the political reality of the world. She did have great settings, characters, plots--even when they were darker than I'd hoped for--still a great read today!

Anonymous said...

I think that Helen MacInnes is an amazing author. I reread her books and find them just as suspenseful as the first reading. And it is sad, that as Hollywood has moved from fairy tales to spy stories--that they overlook some of the best stories or if they make a movie from a book they change the story so that it does not reflect what made the story good in the first place.