‘Her purpose always was to strike at authoritarian governments. In the genre of highly literate suspense she is considered unrivaled.’
Assignment in Brittany is Helen MacInnes’ second book and was published early in World War II not long after the Battle of Dunkirk. It is set in Brittany and captures the bleak atmosphere that must have pervaded the country at a time when the outcome of the war was completely unknown. Helen MacInnes describes the people and the country meticulously, as is usual with her writing. Her books generally start slowly and build to a climax and often include unexpected surprises. I remember reading another of her books where the main character was unexpectedly bumped off a few chapters in. It took me a while to forgive her for that.
As you might have surmised from the title, Assignment in Brittany is a story of espionage. The location of Brittany is interesting as there was a strong Breton Nationalist movement in place whose goal was complete independence and separation from France. This caused some individuals to look to Nazi Germany for help. This background makes for an intriguing plot and some tense situations.
Martin Hearne, a British spy, is assigned to investigate a Frenchman injured in a battle. This man, Bertrand Corlay, was Hearne’s spitting image, and when Hearne’s boss spotted the Frenchman in an English hospital, he asked Hearne to find out more about the man. Conveniently, Hearne was a fluent speaker of the Breton language and had some knowledge of the country. If Hearne could impersonate the man he might be able to find out what the Germans were planning regarding Britain.
Hearne’s interview with Corlay gave him a good amount of information up to a point but as it turned out, there was some pertinent details he didn’t reveal.
‘He stared at the unfamiliar watch on his wrist. Three hours ago, he had stood on English soil. Three hours ago, he had been Martin Hearne, British Intelligence agent. Now he was in Nazi-occupied Brittany, posing as Bertrand Corlay, with the Frenchman’s life reduced to headings in his memory.
Hearne looked down at the faded uniform, which had once been Corlay’s, felt once more for the papers in the inside pocket. He was ready. From now on, he was one step away from death….’
Hearne is parachuted into Brittany and makes his way to Corlay’s home where he lived with his invalid mother, Madame Corlay, and their two old servants. Shell shock would be his excuse for any aberrations of behaviour his family might notice . But why was Madame Corlay so cold towards her returned son and why did his fiancée, Anne, break off their engagement as soon as he returned?
The story really begins to pick up pace here as he discovers that Bertrand Corlay is not all he appeared to be.
There is a wonderful description of Mont-Saint-Michel where Hearne has an encounter with Nazis and is helped by the intervention of the French Resistance. A love story sneaks in there as well and an ending that is in harmony with the uncertainty of the what the future might hold while maintaining a ray of hope.
In the 1940’s, the villains in Miss MacInnes’s books were Nazis; in later years they were often Communists. ”I’m against totalitarians in general -national or religious, extremists of the right or left.”