We’ll never know the half of it, he thought: those of us who lived through this war in safety will never know the half of it. Even if we can imagine all the stark bloodshed which peacetime prophets foretold, we shall never guess about the little things, the little things which add up to a horror of their own.
It has been several years since I’ve read a Helen MacInnes book, probably about four. The funny thing is that I can tell you very little about them. My Dell paperbacks from the sixties give little in the way of summaries, and the titles give no additional clues, so I can pick one up and not be sure of whether I’ve read it. This doesn’t happen often; usually I have a very good memory for plots.
I just picked up Assignment in Brittany at a booksale, however, so I know that I’ve never read it before. It’s a lovely jacketed hardcover, not a book club edition but the real deal from 1942. According to the jacket biography this was only her second book.
Martin Hearne is a British Intelligence officer who has been on several covert missions, but this may be his toughest yet. A young French soldier, Bertrand Corlay, has made it to England after the battle at Dunkirk, and as Corlay lies wounded in an English hospital, Hearne pumps him for information about himself on the pretense of establishing his identity. In reality, however, Hearne will be assuming it. His superior plans to make good use of the uncanny similarity between Hearne and Corlay, so close that even he had been fooled.
France may have signed an armistice with Germany, but the British are still very interested in any suspicious German activity in the region of Brittany. If the Nazis are able to set up base along the coast here than things could get very bad for England. The Intelligence Office needs men to act as eyes, and Hearne is the perfect choice. He has long been interested in Brittany and its people because of his own Cornish descent, and even studied for a year at the Unversity in Rennes before the war. In appearances he is a doppelganger to Corlay, and can mimic the man’s Breton accent perfectly.
Under the cover of night a plane drops Hearne off in France, and he is now like any weary French soldier heading home now that fighting is done. The ancient village of St. Deodat is fortunately small, so that he will not have to pretend to know many people, and Corlay’s mother is bedridden and nearsighted. The plan is to spend the days working around the farm and the nights scouting out the surrounding countryside. Already he can tell that the Germans seems to be at work building secret air bases away from watchful eyes and well within range of the British coast.
As with any plan, however, complications arrive. Madame Corlay is none too happy that her son is content to have an armistice on German terms. Then there is the matter of Anne Pinot. It may have been arranged by their parents, but Anne had been affianced to Corlay, and though she seems to accept him she doesn’t act like he expected. Finally, even Corlay himself turns out to have been different from what he seemed. The Frenchman withheld some aspects of his life during interrogation at the British hospital, and Hearne has to do a very careful job piecing those together if he wants to keep playing this game. When the Germans arrive in St. Deodat before long, the urgency is even greater.
Hearne is a very likable hero. He has fantastic courage, stamina, and wits, a combination that sometimes reminded me of Hannay in The Thirty-Nine Steps, but he is also a really nice guy. Even though his focus is on reconnaissance, he assists and stands up for others at jeopardy to himself, like the American journalist whom he helps escape. Helen MacInnes also shows us the everyday courage of the people of France. They refuse to submit to tyranny, and stick out their necks to work for freedom even if it means exposing themselves to risk.
I do love reading about World War II, but every book reminds me again how fortunate we are. As the quote from the book above suggests, we simply will never know the everyday horrors that people went through. I can barely imagine rationing, let alone the deprivation of being an occupied country, the sorrow of kissing a loved one goodbye not knowing if it’s the last time, the constant shadows of fear and uncertainty that darkened every heart. Helen MacInnes lived in Scotland and England and traveled a lot before moving to America with her husband; she wrote An Assignment in Brittany in 1942. It strikes me every time I read a book or watch a movie from the 1940s about the war that at the time they had no idea of the outcome. Germany could very well have launched a full-scale attack on the British coast before the book was out of a first printing. I don’t think I will ever read historical fiction about the war that is more powerful than something written firsthand.
Both the plot and the characters were well done, and drew me in so that I could barely put down the book. Even glancing through it to write this post I can still feel the uncertainty I mentioned above. My only complaint, which I recall as being true of her other books as well, is that she doesn’t do endings very well.It’s all suspense-suspense-building suspense-climax-end of climax; there’s no denouement, so that I finished the book and thought, “wait, what just happened?” I had to reread the last few pages, and I still wish she gave a bit more closure.
I have acquired most of her books over the years, and I’ll have to remember to work her into the rotation with the other mystery and suspense authors. I was looking up information about this book and came across a review that criticized the misleading Dell paperbacks for labeling this as romantic suspense, and I suddenly realized that that’s the reason I probably liked but didn’t loved the ones I had read before. They’re fantastic espionage stories with a hint of romance, whereas I think I had been expecting something more gothic. Now I want to reread the others as well.
Another review claimed that the book was given to American soldiers being sent to France later in the war. I have no idea whether or not that’s true, but if it is it speaks for the resonance and accuracy of the novel. Assignment in Brittany was also apparently made into a movie in 1943. Hopefully I’ll be able to watch it either through Netflix or TCM.