There is a line that has appeared on the cover of just about every Helen MacInnes novel I have ever seen. It comes from a Newsweek review:
Helen MacInnes can hang her cloak and dagger right up there with Eric Ambler and Graham Greene.
I’m not so sure about Greene, I’ve not really read enough of his “entertainments” to know how valid the comparison might be. But Ambler!
There is a pattern that recurs in most, though not all, of the spy stories by both Ambler and MacInnes. The central character is an amateur, often a journalist or a writer of some sort, caught up unexpectedly in events way outside their normal experience. These events are usually triggered by a chance encounter, escalate at a rate that does not allow the protagonist time to get away, and despite being an amateur the protagonist proves to have reserves of ingenuity that makes him (always him) an effective player in a dangerous game. The drama plays out far from the protagonist’s familiar home territory, and there is usually a journey of some sort central to the action that keeps everyone off balance.
Let us take, for example, one novel by each that I happen to have read recently. Neither is among the best known examples of their work, but they are both typical of their author’s storytelling.
Eric Ambler’s Uncommon Danger (1937) was his second published novel (Ambler’s own preferred title, Background to Danger, is, I think, better). It is the story of Kenton, a freelance journalist, travelling around Europe in 1936. In Nuremberg he loses all his money playing poker dice and has to get a train to Vienna where he hopes to find an old acquaintance who might be persuaded to lend him more cash. But on the train he runs into Herr Sachs who claims to be a Jew escaping the Nazis, and persuades Kenton to smuggle an envelope of what he claims are bonds across the Austrian border in exchange for cash. But before Kenton can return the envelope Sachs is killed, and Kenton is framed for the murder. Kenton then finds himself caught in a spy game between a wily Russian agent and a ruthless representative of a British oil company.
Snare of the Hunter (1974) is, on the other hand, a relatively late work by Helen MacInnes (her first novel had appeared in 1941, so she was a pretty close contemporary of Ambler). This is the story of David Mennery, an American music journalist, who, years before, had briefly befriended a Czech girl, Irina. Now Irina has escaped to the West, and because he once knew her David is recruited to help her on her journey across Austria and into Switzerland where she can be reunited with her father, a famous author in exile. But Irina’s escape has been facilitated by her ex-husband, a powerful figure in the Czech secret service who wants to use Irina as a way of getting to her father.
Though separated by nearly 40 years, there are familiar patterns in both works: David and Kenton play much the same role, with similar competence, and the drama is largely played out in the course of a journey. (There is no journey in another Ambler from the same time, Epitaph for a Spy, but the setting is a small hotel in the south of France and all of the characters are there at the mid-point of a journey.)
Of course there are differences between Ambler and MacInnes. For MacInnes the protagonist is always a hero figure, noble, bold, in the right; though she practically always includes a traitor among those close to the protagonist upon whom he must depend. For Ambler, on the other hand, the protagonist is not morally pure, he is an ambiguous figure who learns resolution only in the face of the danger he encounters. On the other hand, once he has worked out who he can trust, those characters remain trustworthy throughout the novel.
Both writers set their work in relatively exotic European locations; Ambler tending towards Eastern Europe and Turkey, MacInnes preferring glamorous places such as Paris, Saltzburg, Malaga and the Greek Islands. But the location was intimately tied to the romance of MacInnes’s work and she included lots of confident local knowledge in her often extensive scenic descriptions. Ambler didn’t really care that much for landscape, and his scene setting could often be quite perfunctory. There is, for instance, no sense of France in Epitaph for a Spy.
The biggest difference between the two, though, is philosophical, or at least political. For MacInnes her early novels, written during and just after World War II, invariably featured Nazis as villains; but once the Cold War got started her villains were always of the left: any communist was bad, any fellow traveller was bad, anyone whose politics were left of centre was a fool who unwittingly aided bad people. Ambler was considerably less clear-cut in his choice of villains. In novels like The Mask of Dimitrios or Uncommon Danger the villain acts as an agent for big business, because it is business that shapes European politics more than anything else. Because international business is more corrupt and villainous even than the Nazis, the good guys tend to be on the left. I suspect that Uncommon Danger is one of very few British spy novels in which the Soviet spy is a hero. By the mid-Fifties, Ambler had become less comfortable with communism, and the Russians started to become the villains, but he was never as vehemently anti-left as MacInnes always was.
Ambler’s novels are shorter and tighter: he tends to get down to plot as quickly as possible, and spends little time on extraneous details that might decorate that plot. MacInnes is more expansive, her novels tend to be considerably longer than Ambler’s. She likes to take time setting the scene and situating her characters very precisely in their landscape, she also tells a romance as much as a drama. Nevertheless, MacInnes owes a clear debt to Ambler, both are exploring a common model of the cloak and dagger tale.