Sunday, January 24, 2016

Helen MacInnes, North from Rome


Opening Passage:
At last, the city was quiet.

Quiet enough for sleep, William Lammiter thought as he finished his cigarette on the small balcony outside of his hotel bedroom. It was three o'clock in the morning--no, almost half-past three by his watch--and Rome was at peace. Practically.... (p. 3)

Summary: Bill Lammiter, a playwright suddenly made famous by his first play, has just about had his fill of Rome. He hasn't done any serious writing for a month, and, worse than that, he lost his girlfriend to a handsome Italian count. Perhaps he should go to some Umbrian hill town in Perugia and see if his luck changes. Alas, before he can ever do so, he ends up having to rescue an extremely beautiful Italian girl from men attempting to abduct her.

This is the 1950s and Italy like many places in the world is still dealing with the aftermath of World War II and the increasingly intense cat-and-mouse games between Communists and the West. Lammiter's involvement in rescuing the lovely Italian girl, Rosana, turns eyes toward him. They look into his past. And they notice that he has a record in intelligence. In fact, he handled nothing very clandestine, or dangerous, and most of his job was just checking security procedures, but nobody believes that. Lammiter has stumbled onto a narcotics ring that exists to fund and further the interests of Communists in Italy.

And, as it happens, at the center of it all is a handsome Italian count who stole someone's girlfriend.

Involved against his will, Lammiter, a complete amateur in spycraft, must navigate the grave dangers of espionage, narcotics smuggling, Communism, and American tourists to save his life and the life of the woman he loves.

As a spy thriller, the plot is swift overall, although MacInnes sees no need to keep it at crash-bang speed most of the time. Some of the characters are strongly developed -- Lammiter, and Giuseppe, and, best of all, the principessa. I was a little disappointed with the characterization of Rosana, but not in a serious way -- she just turns out to be less interesting than you would expect from meeting her in such a complicated situation. But the real strength of the book is the travel-writing aspect of it. MacInnes and her husband took regular trips to Europe, so the scenery is all based on real experience, and is quite vivid.

Favorite Passage:

The road twisted among trees up toward the walled town. Beyond the trees, on either side, the terraces of olive groves rose step by step. They seemed dead. The silver-green leaves were black and hard. Last winter's frosts must have been bitter.

Joe noticed the look on Lammiter's face. "Yes," he said, "it's tough on the people. This is the way all the hills are this year. But give the olive trees three good years, and they'll come alive again."

"Three years. It's a long time to wait." Lammiter could see the town more clearly now: a mass of roofs and towers behind an encircling wall.

"People have lived here for nearly three thousand years. That wall was first built by the Etruscans. Then the Romans came and built on top of it. What's three years to a wall like that?" (p. 174)

Recommendation: As light reading, this was quite solid. Recommended if it happens to come your way.


Helen MacInnes, North from Rome, Harcourt, Brace, & Co. (New York: 1958).

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