Born 7 October 1907, Glasgow, Scotland; died 30 September 1985
Also wrote under: Helen MacInnes Highet
Daughter of Donald and Jessica Sutherland McInnes; married Gilbert Highet, 1932; children: one son
Helen MacInnes earned an M.A. degree at Glasgow University in 1928 and received her diploma in librarianship from University College, London, in 1931. In 1939 she and her husband, Gilbert Highet, a classics professor, left Oxford and settled in New York City. MacInnes adopted a variant spelling of her family surname under which she published, instead of her married surname. In addition to her 18 novels, MacInnes also published a clever comic play on Ulysses' return, Home is the Hunter (1964).
Ralph Harper in The World of the Thriller suggests that crime in detective stories threatens to destroy a portion of society and in spy stories the threat is that civilization will be undermined. The spy genre in America fully emerged with World War II, and MacInnes' Above Suspicion (1941, reprinted 1985) and Assignment in Brittany (1942, reprinted 1983)—still two of her best books—used contemporary events of the war and successfully established her reputation as a master of the thriller, as the queen of suspense, and as a popular writer of spy novels. Several of her novels have been made into films, and most MacInnes titles were bestsellers. Her audience extends into numerous countries where translations of her work have appeared.
In a MacInnes spy novel, professional agents abound, but interest usually centers on the amateur—an Oxford don, an architect, artist, lawyer, playwright, music critic—thrust into international intrigue to confront real dangers which are often serious enough to undermine the social structure. David Mennery in Snare of the Hunter (1974), Tom Kelso in Agent in Place (1976, 1983), and Colin Grant in Prelude to Terror (1978) illustrate her continued success in portraying the amateur agent effectively.
After World War II, MacInnes' subject matter involved data still vital and dangerous after the war; later she moved to complex political plots in which communist forces pose threats to individuals' safety and to the security of nations. Although MacInnes never moved into the elaborate gimmicks of the James Bond novels, readers nevertheless find sinister enemy agents, coded messages, kidnappings, elaborately planned secret meetings, narrow escapes, chases, betrayals, brutal murders, and love affairs—devices that have made MacInnes' novels extremely popular over her writing career of nearly 50 years. If the situations in her novels do not lead readers to serious self-examination and profound self-judgment, she does often present a character who is apolitical; who staunchly insists good be recognized as good, evil as evil; and who acts relentlessly from strong beliefs.
Set throughout the world, MacInnes' novels reflect her extensive travel and careful research. Most reviewers have noted the convincing locales; others have complained characters frequently are too good, too bad, or too idealistic. At times, multiple subplots and excessive literary and musical allusions weigh down the main story line. A more serious defect is occasional propaganda, which one reviewer of Message from Málaga (1971, 1987) saw as so marring her work that it is unreadable because "she seems now less concerned to tell a good story than to make an apologia for the U.S., assailed by external enemies, riddled from within."
Nevertheless, MacInnes combines adventure, a patriotic struggle against evil forces, individual heroism, and rewards by love in novels read by millions. Friends and Lovers (1947, 1987) and Rest and Be Thankful (1949, 1983), her two novels outside the spy genre, were not particularly successful. Her continued popularity came from her spy novels (many still in print) in which genre she is, as one reviewer has noted, "such a pro."
Sexual Life in Ancient Rome by O. Kiefer (translated by MacInnes, with G. Highet, 1934). Friederich Engels: A Biography by G. Mayer (translated by MacInnes, with G. Highet, 1936). While Still We Live (1944, 1989). Horizon (1946, 1985). Neither Five Nor Three (1951, 1983). I and My True Love (1953, 1983). Pray for a Brave Heart (1955, 1985). North from Rome (1958, 1982). Assignment: Suspense (1961). Decision at Delphi (1961, 1983). The Venetian Affair (1963, 1985). The Double Image (1966, 1985). The Salzburg Connection (1968, 1983). The Hidden Target (1980, 1982). Cloak of Darkness (1982). The Unconquerable (1990). Ride A Pale Horse (1985, 1986). Mystery (1996).
A manuscript collection of Helen MacInnes' works is in the Princeton University Library in New Jersey.
Breit, H., The Writer Observed (1956). Fadiman, C., The Art of Helen MacInnes (1971). MacInnes, H., Introduction to Assignment: Suspense (1961).
CB (Nov. 1967). Encyclopedia Mysteriosa (1994). St. James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers (1996). TCAS.
Counterpoint (1965). Film Literature Quarterly (1977).