When you know that the author of numerous spy/espionage novels spanning World War II and the Cold War era had a degree in French and German, travelled throughout Europe with her husband (a professor of Classics and History) using the money they’d earned from translating German literature, and had witnessed first-hand the rise of the Nazis, you would expect her novels to have a ring of authenticity.
If you also learnt that her husband served with the British Intelligence and was a pioneer of the art of using the psychological profiles of Nazi leaders such as Hitler, Goebbels, Goering, and Himmler (based on his psychoanalysis of Roman emperors) to predict their behaviour under different circumstances, you would expect Helen MacInnes’s writing to be well-researched. Known as the ‘Queen of Spy writers,’ MacInnes’s books show her intimacy with the philosophies and politics of the times she wrote about and lived through.
Decision in Delphi, written in 1960, was predominantly set in Greece and follows a young architect, Kenneth Strang, on what at first appeared to be an innocent assignment: to visit the ruins of Ancient Greece and its western empire, and to reconstruct in his drawings the temples and theatres as they had once stood.
A photographer was to join him in Italy, but even before they met, there were a series of mysterious events and ill-omened encounters which foreshadowed dangerous times ahead.
When Strang arrived in Europe he was swept up in a conspiracy spearheaded by a nihilist known as Odysseus, and as the action intensified, it reached its climax at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi.
* Helen MacInnes’s books are peppered throughout with historical, philosophical, classical & mythological references. I always feel enriched after I’ve read her novels and that I’ve gained a deeper knowledge of historical events and a better acquaintance with the European landscape. Her writing has a literary quality and is very descriptive and enjoyable.
* Her belief in freedom and her concerns about tyranny played a large part in her novels. Fascism, communism, existentialism and nihilism are common themes running through her writing.
* I knew very little about Greek history prior to reading Decision in Delphi but Helen MacInnes shed some interesting light into the country’s dark times. After World War II, approximately 28,000 children were kidnapped by the Greek Communist rebels during the Greek Civil War (1946 to 1949) and taken to countries behind the Iron Curtain. This was called the Paidomazoma or ‘Child Gathering,’ and it was the first time I’d ever heard of it. This and other events in Greece which followed the second world war play a central part in the storyline of the book.
MacInnes’s books don’t contain gratuitous violence; there is usually a romance, or the hint of one, and any adult themes are treated discreetly. Compared to the spy thrillers of today, her writing may be considered tame. The strong points of her books are the main characters, usually amateurs who unwillingly become caught up in plots, her descriptions of the landscape and peoples, and the historical and political content. If you enjoy Dorothy Sayers, I think you’d also appreciate MacInnes, although the latter’s books are an easier read. They are very different writers but both had classical influences and they each delve into their own particular interests thoroughly.
Video on the Greek Civil War, a British political documentary produced in 1986. Some graphic content – ‘The Hidden War.’