MacInnes, Helen (1907–1985)

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MacInnes, Helen (1907–1985)

Scottish author known as the "Master Teller of Spy Stories." Name variations: Helen Clark; Helen Clark MacInnes; Helen Highet. Born Helen Clark MacInnes on October 7, 1907, in Glasgow, Scotland; died on September 30, 1985, in New York City; daughter ofDonald MacInnes and Jessica (McDiarmid) MacInnes; Glasgow University, M.A., 1928; diploma in librarianship, University College, London, 1931; married Gilbert Highet (a classical scholar), in 1932 (died 1978); children: one son.

Immigrated to United States (1937); wrote first novel (1941); became U.S. citizen (1951); published last book (1984).

Selected writings:

Above Suspicion (1941); Assignment in Brittany (1942); While Still We Live (published as The Unconquerable in UK, 1944); Horizon (1945); Friends and Lovers (1947); Rest and Be Thankful (1949); I and My True Love (1953); Pray for a Brave Heart (1955); North from Rome (1958); Decision at Delphi (1961); The Venetian Affair (1963); The Double Image (1966); The Salzburg Connection (1968); Message from Màlaga (1972); The Snare of the Hunter (1974); Agent in Place (1976); (play) Home Is the Hunter (1976); Prelude to Terror (1978); The Hidden Target (1980); Cloak of Darkness (1982); Ride a Pale Horse (1984).

Helen MacInnes was the author of 21 spy novels that detail a world of international adventure not dissimilar to her own globe-trotting exploits. Her works of fiction are known for a wealth of site detail woven into intrigue-laden plots, and she did much of the research and legwork for the books herself.

MacInnes was born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1907, and later attended that city's university until receiving her M.A. in 1928. For a time she worked as a cataloguer at a Glasgow University library, then went to London to earn a diploma in librarianship from University College. In 1932, she married Gilbert Highet, a scholar, and they honeymooned in Bavaria. Over the next few years, MacInnes worked with her husband on translations, which allowed them to save enough money to spend summers traveling across Europe. She received joint translator credit for two works from the original German: Sexual Life in Ancient Rome, by Otto Kiefer, and a biography of Friedrich Engels. With Highet, she lived in Oxford, and became active in the university town's Experimental Theater; she was also an avid tennis player and loved to attend the theater and concerts. They settled in New York City in 1937, when Highet took a post at Columbia University, but with the onset of World War II he was requested to join England's famed military intelligence service, as were many other scholars.

This request and the devastating events taking place in Europe led to the genesis of MacInnes' first novel. Keen on current events, she kept a journal chronicling world affairs from newspaper stories, and was often able to predict political outcomes correctly. Furthermore, she had kept a journal during her Bavarian honeymoon in 1932, while Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist Party had been rising to power (particularly in southern Germany); this journal provided the basis for a novel about the situation. An immediate bestseller upon its publication in 1941, Above Suspicion chronicles the adventures of a pleasant, scholarly couple from Oxford, England, who spend summers mountaineering. Wishing to visit Europe one more time, as war seems imminent, they are deemed "above suspicion" by the German government and are granted permission for another Alpine vacation in 1937. In actuality, however, they have been sent by their government to ferret out a secret agent working for Britain. In the course of the novel, the couple meet up with old friends from past visits who are sympathetic to the Nazi government, and meet new ones who are not. The book was made into a 1943 movie of the same title starring Joan Crawford and Fred MacMurray.

Above Suspicion launched MacInnes' career as an espionage writer. Like many of her subsequent

works, the novel features villainous fascists or communists and an abundance of European intrigue. Though she became an American citizen in 1951, MacInnes traveled frequently to Europe with her husband after World War II, and her familiarity with both its cities and more rustic areas allowed for a surfeit of detail that delighted armchair-bound readers. Local customs and culture, cuisine and wines, and even street names were all faithful; in some cases MacInnes had her characters pass through actual restaurants or shops. Highet, with the benefit of his military intelligence work, helped to provide realistic procedures and dialogue for her professional spies. Her 1942 novel Assignment in Brittany was used by the Allies when training agents to assist the French Resistance because of its accuracy in showing the extreme difficulty of undercover work. After the 1944 publication of While Still We Live, Department of War officials in Washington, D.C., called MacInnes in for questioning, wishing to know how she came by so much abundant detail on the activities of the Polish resistance movement during the Nazi occupation.

In 1945's Horizon, MacInnes utilized her knowledge of mountain climbing to add excitement to the narrative, and Rest and Be Thankful, published in 1949, is set in Wyoming, where she had once spent time on a ranch. I and My True Love reflects the height of Cold War fears in 1953, and 1960's Decision at Delphi (for which she located and interviewed veterans for battle specifics) revisits World War II events in Italy and Greece. For The Venetian Affair (1963), MacInnes made certain that her characters' flights through Venice's maze of streets, some of them one-way, were accurate to the last. Some of her later works used the division of Europe into fenced-off communist and Western spheres in plots of political double-cross. MacInnes' protagonists were usually innocents drawn into the world of espionage who, during the course of the novel, came of age politically after being forced to act upon their personal beliefs and patriotic ideals. In many cases the protagonist was a young woman traveling abroad, and a romance with her American or British spy contact served as subplot. Said to have been influenced by the writings of George Orwell and Rebecca West , MacInnes displayed throughout her career distrust for and horror of totalitarianism and all its trappings. She sometimes suffered criticism for the heavy hand with which she drew her Nazi or Soviet villains; in her books, democracy always emerges the rightful victor. Nonetheless, she earned the sobriquet of "Master Teller of Spy Stories," and her novels, which sold over 23 million copies in America, have appeared in 22 languages.

MacInnes and Highet, who had one son together, lived the rest of their lives divided between New York City, Long Island's East Hampton, and their travels abroad. Gilbert Highet died in 1978. Ride a Pale Horse, published in 1984, was Helen MacInnes' last book, and she died after a stroke in New York City on September 30, 1985.


Contemporary Authors. Vol. 117. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1986.

Macdonald, Gina. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 87: British Mystery and Thriller Writers Since 1940. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1989, pp. 284–294.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Mote, Dave, ed. Contemporary Popular Writers. Detroit, MI: St. James Press, 1997.

Reilly, John M., ed. Twentieth-Century Crime and Mystery Writers. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1985.


Helen MacInnes' manuscripts are held at the Princeton University Library, Princeton, New Jersey.

Carol Brennan , Grosse Pointe, Michigan