Helen MacInnes was a remarkable woman. She was a Scots Presbyterian young lady of Glasgow (my mother’s stomping grounds), degreed in French and German, a librarian, a classic German literature translator, a European traveler, an amateur actress and a wife of an MI6 British intelligence agent. She has a number of espionage thrillers to her name, and her second novel, Assignment in Brittany, reads as though she had been fully immersed in Breton culture. So realistic were her spy novels that this particular one was required reading for agents being sent to occupied France to aid the French Resistance. It gives a very finely crafted picture of the details and care that such work requires. Other books from her pen have been accused of taking nuggets of classified material from her husband’s mind and incorporating them into the plot, which makes for a great dose of authenticity. Written in 1942, Assignment in Brittany had al the richness of a tale spun by one who’d “been there and done that.”
While it seemed to get off to a rather slow start, it quickly picked up the pace and became a well-written spy-yarn and filled with rich images and suspense. The plot follows a British agent, our hero Hearne, who is discovered to be the spitting image of a guy who had been picked up wounded in a battle with Axis forces, one Bertrand Corlay. This fellow Corlay, a Frenchman from Brittany, will spend the rest of the war in the hospital. Here is an opportunity to send Hearne in his place. Hearne learns him well, his language nuances, his town, the people there, what they do and who they are. Hearne learns Corlay’s business, and even had a cosmetic birthmark applied, which comes in handy later. He is going to drop in by parachute, take up the role of Corlay, and find out all info about the state of things in Brittany, and report back regularly. After all, the war effort includes a coming invasion almost two years away, so any kind of intel about the Nazis is vital intel, especially in this area where a future invasion might occur.
Can Hearne pull off the doppelgänger assignment? We learn quickly that there are things Corlay did not tell Hearne, especially once he realized why Hearne wanted to know everything about him. Would Hearn fool Corlay’s own mother? His betrothed? The farm hands? His mistress that he didn’t know about… More importantly, would Hearne be able to move seamlessly into the role that Corlay did not even mention, his darker side? Would you tell some stranger who looked just like you every secret you kept?
They say that if you just boldly act like you know what you are doing, you can pull of miracles. Or as Buchan wrote in Greenmantle about the awful Colonel von Stumm – that is, treat the Germans with a radical brazen audacity – you can pass muster as who you purport to be, despite the chinks in your armor. I loved Hearn because he did just this with great gusto. It was all or nothing with his act, and it bought a few seconds, sowed a few doubts, provoked a hesitation or two. This is a fantastic plot that moves along with just the right balance of rich detail and action.
MacInnes has the ability to craft a scene, a place, and characters. I found myself scouring maps of north-western France for some of the place-names so I could examine the land on Google Maps’ street view. Besides the obvious larger cities, I discovered like so many readers, that the places are mostly fictional. That said, MacInnes’ travels, familiarity with the languages and nuances of regional cultures, and her experience in Brittany gives her credible subject-matter authority. The Breton culture, its rebel attitude, its mistrust of outsiders, shine through and form good plot-moving devices. The condition of the minds and hearts of the locals is well presented.
As for writing craft, she excelled. There was a fishing village with a lurid and run-down pub called Golden Star that was so vivid I felt like I was there. I could feel the damp night and smell the mud flats. In my mind I had visualized the proprietor, a burly old salt named Louis, as soon as I had met him. It was one of those ‘scenes’ that seems to represent the whole book when you think back on the story as a whole.
MacInnes knew spy craft very well, and if you were sharp you picked up some good observational advice. Like how one guy was a bit too liberal with the use of cooking oil while everyone else in occupied France is scraping by and using as little as possible. That clue, combined with a few others, show that the cook might be in the pay of the enemy. Assignment in Brittany was full of practical little observations of that sort, which made it a useful training tool for men heading behind the lines. These are the details that shine.
The end of the story is frequently maligned as sentimental sap. Indeed, it resolves a sub-plot, and it is a bit sappy. But this is easily overlooked and outweighed by the rest of the story. I ended up skimming the last chapter once I knew how it resolved.
MacInnes was also staunchly pro-liberty. This is certainly a natural result of her Calvinistic worldview taught from the Presbyterian tradition of her upbringing. Such protestantism can’t help but stir up a powerful anti-tyrant and anti-statist mind, which is why the west was built by protestant thought to begin with (there’s my jab at fascists, communists, heathens and lefties). Her position was refreshingly clear in many places – Hearne himself mused on the cruelties of fascism and the fools in charge of the European decline so plainly seen as modernity progressed onward. She observed, through her main character’s thoughts:
There was the tragedy of it: if only they could have realized the danger while there was still time, while they were still free to carry a gun and still free to make guns for themselves. Instead, they would now find that it costs three times as much to retrieve a position as it takes to hold it.
It was a refreshingly excellent story in terms of its avoidance of cheap thrills and base filth. She wrote cleanly while leaving out no gritty details, even making known the steamy affairs of a femme fatale with skilled taste. She did not need to resort to the graphic crudeness and perverted imagery of lesser authors, she is a real writer. Indeed, my hardback edition was a used library copy from a midwestern American high school, which means nothing in today’s hyper-sexualized, humanistic state schools, but through the mid-sixties, its vetted presence on the shelf meant something. So I would suggest this book to anyone interested in the subject of espionage, World War II, France, or just good thrilling stories that aren’t template-tales and aren’t filled with crude brain-rot. Assignment in Brittany was a thrilling tale with a unique plot, and gave me insights into the French condition I would not have had without. If I had to rate it with stars, 4 out of 5. For full disclosure, I did read most of this book while thoroughly enjoying a well-earned few days of vacation, which always makes a book better received. Still, I’m going to have to look for more works by MacInnes, especially of this period.