Sunday, January 10, 2016

Fortnightly Book, January 10

Since I've just come off a fairly busy holiday and am gearing up for a new term, I decided to avoid anything too heavy for the next fortnightly book. So I'll be reading Helen MacInnes's 1958 spy novel, North from Rome. I don't know whether this was my grandfather's or grandmother's, but I'll finally have gotten around to reading it.

Helen MacInnes was born in Glasgow in 1907 and came to the United States in 1937 when her husband was appointed chair of the Classics department at Columbia University. Her husband, Gilbert Highet, was a well known classicist. He also had done some intelligence work for the Secret Intelligence Service, popularly known as MI6. MacInnes would write 21 espionage novels, several of which were extremely popular. They were also famous for being surprisingly realistic -- some of them were occasionally used as required reading in training intelligence agents and there have always been rumors that she leaked classified information in her fiction. Thus she became known as the Queen of Spy Writers. It's interesting to look back at reviews and bestseller lists -- she's repeatedly mentioned in the same breath with Ian Fleming and John Le Carré (both of whom she often outsold) -- given that she's rarely remembered today.

In North from Rome, a playwright happens to save an Italian girl and ends up for his good deed having to navigate a world of Communism and drug dealing and international intrigue far more complicated than anything he has experienced before. It tends to get mixed reviews from fans, some really liking it and some thinking it weak; it perhaps suffers from falling between her two peak periods in the forties and sixties. We will see....

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