I bought this book on a whim last year, mostly because I got a kick out of the cover. The book was written in 1942—I was curious to find out what constituted “a haunting novel of romance and suspense” almost 75 years ago. When I came home with this book, I found out that Helen MacInnes was quite a prolific writer of espionage thrillers; her Wikipedia entry lists 22 books. Her 1944 book The Unconquerables carried such an accurate portrayal of the Polish resistance that some thought she was using classified information given to her by her husband, who worked for the British Military Intelligence. Assignment in Brittany was required reading for Allied intelligence officers who were sent to work with the French resistance against the Nazis.
No surprise, this is what the story is about. After France capitulates to Germany in WWII, Martin Hearne parachutes into Brittany to take the place of Bertrand Corlay, who is currently recovering in an English hospital. Hearne is to find out what the Germans are up to and whether the Bretons’ fierce sense of independence could be used to fight the Nazis. Hearne and Corlay look remarkably alike, and Hearne spent hours interviewing Corlay before leaving England. At first, everything goes remarkably well, and Hearne makes good progress spying on the Nazis. But Corlay had failed to mention that he is not in love with his fiancé Anne, that he is a selfish bastard who looks out for himself rather than for others, and that he might not be too upset about the Nazis’ arrival in Brittany.
While Hearne might be Corlay’s twin physically, emotionally, he is his opposite. He empathizes with Corlay’s mother, sympathizes with the suffering villagers, and—naturally—even falls in love with Anne. So not only does Hearne have to seamlessly fit into a stranger’s life, he also has to spy on the Germans while juggling being a nice guy impersonating a bastard. The story’s strength definitely lies in this psychological challenge.
At a time before cell phones, computers, and satellites, the spying was done mainly on foot, by asking questions and trying to figure out who to trust without acting suspiciously. All this is set up quite masterfully by MacInnes, although I thought Hearne’s frequent nightly excursions slowed down the pace of the story at times. That man spends a lot of nights running across fields! I was also more than two thirds through the book until I could say with certainty that the woman on the cover must be Anne. The relationship between Hearne and Anne went from 0 to 60 in an extremely short time—it was entertaining, but not entirely convincing. Thankfully, it was saved from too much melodrama by a little twist at the end.
There were times when Helen MacInnes reminded me a little bit of John Le Carré, and if you like spy thrillers that are built on human interaction rather than gadgets and high-energy suspense, then give MacInnes a try. A lot of her books have recently been reprinted by Titan Books.
I read this as part of my Back to the Classics challenge and the Classics Club’s Women’s Classic Literature event.