The 1976 Club – Helen MacInnes

It’s time for another Club reading week hosted by Simon and Karen – and the year chosen this time is 1976. When I examined Wikipedia’s 1976 in Literature page, I saw I’d read quite a few back in the day – most of the SF listed (Delany,Herbert, Niven/Pournelle, Zelazny), plus an assortment of others including Tom Sharpe’s marvellous Wilt and Ira Levin’s The Boys from Brazil, none reviewed here though.

I turned to my bookcases – not many easily located as it turned out. My choice was between

  • The Painter of Signs by R K Narayan
  • The Acts of King Arthur and His Nobel Knights by John Steinbeck
  • Agent in Place by Helen MacInnes

I chose the last of those three of course – it’s a spy thriller – I *LOVE* spy thrillers and MacInnes is a vastly underrated author, and largely forgotten these days. My late mum was a fan, and I remember enjoying several of her books in the late 1970s, and have inherited those paperbacks. She may not be read widely by many, but thanks to Titan books, her entire catalogue of stylish thrillers is still in print – and her 1976 book is…

Agent in Place by Helen MacInnes

It begins with a phonecall…

He knew the voice at once. Nine years since he had last heard it, but its pattern was definite […] Mischa? Yes, Mischa. Even the initial greeting was his own sign-in phrase […].

“Yorktown cleaners?” Mischa was saying. “Please have my blue suit ready for delivery to 10 Old Park Place by six o’clock this evening. Receipt number is 69105A. And my name–” Slowing up of this last phrase gave the cue for a cut-in.

“Sorry–you’ve got the wrong number.”

The coded message gives Alexis all the details he needs for a meeting with his handler in Central Park. But it’s a meeting that will end in Mischa, aka KGB Major Vladimir Konov being shot dead, and Alexis hoping his cover as Heinrich ‘Rick’ Nealey hasn’t been blown. It’s a powerful opening.

Our attention then turns to an institute in New Jersey, Shandon House, a think tank where the minds were helping the American services to analyse an important NATO memorandum, which idealist Chuck Kelso is borrowing for the weekend so he can leak part of the contents to the press in the interests of all. However, the rest of this document is top secret. Chuck manages to get the file past the security manager, and then makes the mistake of locking it in his New York apartment desk, and friend Rick is due to call…

The Memorandum passed into the wrong hands, it’s up to British agent Tony Lawton to hunt out the Soviet ‘agent in place’ for NATO, and to keep an eye on the CIA’s top agent from Moscow, who had to be brought out in a hurry. Also in the game, thrust there by the hell that Chuck has unwittingly unleashed is his brother Tom, a journalist whose own integrity is called into question, and his wife Thea.

The action moves from the USA to the town of Menton on the Cote d’Azur, where Shandon House also has a large villa. It appears that everyone is there in Menton for some reason, but who are the spies in this group of people behaving strangely?

Gosh this was a complicated thriller, extremely well constructed and full of suspense, as well as literary in style. Tony Lawton is a super lead character, and given that the only female character of note is Thea, MacInnes’ men are handled well – although Tom is a bit sleazy the way he drools over his wife, but for the most part her text is refreshing in its depictions. I particularly enjoyed the choice of Menton as the main location which nestles just inside France’s border with Italy, and is home to a lovely old town and port as well as the Jean Cocteau museum which I visited some years ago – spy thrillers just come alive when the location is glamorous – twas ever thus.

Agent in Place is an intelligent thriller and she knows her stuff – her husband worked for MI6 after all. MacInnes is a great rediscovery for me, and I shall certainly return to my inherited paperbacks as well as looking out for others on my travels. (9/10)

Source: Own copy. Agent in Place – Titan paperback, 421 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.

17 thoughts on “The 1976 Club – Helen MacInnes

  1. MarinaSofia says:

    Gad to laugh when you said spy thrillers are at their best when they combine with glamorous locations- how very Bond of you! Bet it’s not at all like that in real life…

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Despite everything, I do love Bond. But even Le Carre had a few exotic locations in his novels, alongside the gritty stuff.

  2. mallikabooks15 says:

    Enjoyed your review. My mom loves MacInnes as well; I’ve read only Above Suspicion so far which I enjoyed and also have my mum’s copies of The Salzburg Connection and Assignment in Brittany on my TBR.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I have The Salzburg Connection, Decision at Delphi and a couple of others. I’ll look forward to re-reading them.

  3. MarketGardenReader/IntegratedExpat says:

    For some reason I have a hardback copy of The Salzburg Connection on my bookshelf. I have no idea how it got there and have never felt the inclination to read it. After your review of one of her books, I am finally convinced it’s worth reading after all, one day.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      That’s one I’ve got too – I remember loving it when I read it as a teen, so shall look forward to a revisit. I hope you enjoy it if you read it too.

  4. buriedinprint says:

    I grew up loving spy stories, but I don’t believe I’ve ever read one of her books, so I’ll have to keep a look out. Someone in the neighbourhood has recently cleared out their collection of Robert Ludlum novels, mass-market paperbacks, which are scattered all over the Little Free Libraries nearby. I’d read most of them! Heheh

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I don’t know whether I’ve ever read a Ludlum. You should look out for MacInnes though, she’s a cut above most of the other thriller authors of the time.

  5. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Excellent choice Annabel! MacInnes used to be on the shelves when I was growing up too, and I’m sure I have at least one in my house. Obvs I need to dig it out and read it – such a shame she doesn’t get more attention nowadays!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      This was one I haven’t read before, and it was great. So much better than much of the comparable thriller fare of the time.

  6. Claire (The Captive Reader) says:

    Wonderful pick! I only discovered MacInnes a couple of years ago (when my library added most of her books to their e-book catalogue) and have enjoyed all that I’ve read so far. As you say, the foreign settings always add to the appeal of a thriller.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Even Le Carre used some glamorous foreign settings! I’m an absolute sucker for the Cote d’Azur though.

  7. Simon T says:

    I find it so interesting that 1976 had some fairly comforting, old-fashioned-feeling books, and then something that sounds as modern and thrilling as this! Glad it was such a success.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I was determined to find a good thriller for 1976, as that’s what I was reading at the time mostly. MacInnes is one of the best from the 60s/70s and I must (re-)read more by her.

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