Helen MacInnes (1907-1985) was a very popular writer of spy fiction during her lifetime and unlike many thriller writers of her era her books remain in print. Her husband worked for MI6 for many years, which gives her books a feeling of authenticity. In fact it’s been suggested that she made use of classified material to which he had access. She was popular enough to see four of her spy thrillers adapted to film. The Venetian Affair, published in 1964, was made into a movie of the same name in 1967.
Her early books such as Above Suspicion deal with espionage in German-occupied Europe during World War 2. After the war she switched to Cold War themes, reflecting her strong dislike of totalitarianism. MacInnes was born in Scotland but became a US citizen in the early 1950s.
I’ve seen MacInnes’s books referred to as Ian Fleming for grownups, a comparison that is rather unfair. Fleming was in the grand tradition of early 20th century British thriller writers like John Buchan, H. C. McNeile’s Bulldog Drummond novels and Sax Rohmer (an influence which is often overlooked but which Fleming himself acknowledged). MacInnes belongs to a very different tradition, that of the dark-edged thrillers of betrayal which began with Eric Ambler and Graham Greene and led eventually to Len Deighton and John le Carré. Like Ambler MacInnes was fond of protagonists who are amateurs caught up reluctantly in the treacherous and dangerous world of espionage.
The protagonist of The Venetian Affair is very much of this type. Bill Fenner is an American theatre critic on his way to Paris for a sort of working holiday. On the plane he notices a large and very nervous man who looks distinctly unwell. On arrival at Orly this man collapses and there’s a certain amount of confusion. Fenner thinks little of this until he gets to his hotel and realises he has picked up the wrong coat by mistake. He has picked up the nervous man’s coat and when he examines it he finds a very disturbing surprise. Sewn into the lining is a package containing $100,000 in American currency. Reasoning that it is very unlikely that any man who goes around with that amount of money concealed in his coat would have come by the money honestly, and further reasoning that he is now in a slightly awkward position, he contacts the American consulate.
As a result of that innocent mix-up with the coat Bill Fenner finds himself plunged into the murky world of espionage. The American security services already know about the money and they have their suspicions as to its purpose but they now need Bill Fenner’s help in unravelling a very dangerous conspiracy.
Fenner had been a foreign correspondent until his rather unpleasant divorce. He had discovered that his wife was a Soviet agent and that she had been using him for her own political purposes. So Fenner is not entirely a stranger to the world of international intrigue.
Fenner’s trip to Paris was also not quite as innocent as he had believed. His boss, the publisher of The Chronicle, had asked him to interview a French professor of Moral Philosophy. The professor had been involved with the Resistance during the war and now runs a kind of private intelligence-gathering network. And he has stumbled onto a vast communist plot involving the assassination of a major world leader and an attempt to use this assassination to discredit the US and to sow dissension between the US and its European allies.
These three plot strands - the interview with the French professor, Fenner’s divorce and the mix-up with the coat - will gradually be drawn together in Venice.
MacInnes was known for her skillful use of exotic locations and that skill is very much to the fore in this novel.
If there’s a weakness to this story it’s a slightly excessive reliance on coincidence. Fortunately it’s not a serious flaw and MacInnes’s intricate plotting is generally effective.
Betrayal is very much the theme in this novel. Espionage is not just an amusing pastime for bored theatre critics, it’s a vicious world of treason, personal treachery and deception. The world of espionage is a dangerous and unpleasant world but Bill Fenner is also very much aware that there are vital interests at stake and there is a very real moral dimension. MacInnes was not one of those spy writers who saw espionage as a contest between two equally corrupt sides. There is good and evil, right and wrong, and evil does not go away if you try to ignore it.
MacInnes lacks the corrosive pessimism and cynicism of a le Carré or a Deighton, or even an Ambler. In spite of this (or possibly because of it) her popularity reached new heights in the 1960s. The Venetian Affair is a fine example of the realistic spy novel, and it’s thoroughly entertaining. Highly recommended.