Friday 8 January 2016

Reading Europe: Decision at Delphi by Helen MacInnes (1907-1985)

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.

The whole Acropolis opened up to their eyes, a high plateau of solid rock, a vast bare sweep of sloping grey stone, uneven yet worn smooth. Once there had been many statues and altars and sanctuaries, a multitude of offerings and memorials, a forest of marble richly decorated in colour and with gold. Now, except for a few rejected fragments lying scattered around, a pathetic remembrance of things past, there were only the remains of three temples left standing - with their rows of fluted columns rising, heavy drum on heavy drum of marble, the gold and sculpture and treasures looted, 
the dark-red and blue painted decorations washed and faded into whiteness. The houses of the gods, the Greeks had called them.

Some thoughts:

*  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.

And feuds were common, too, in the Peloponnese, that large southern stretch of Greece now joined to the mainland only by a bridge over the Corinth Canal; the man-made island of scattered towns where Homer's heroes had been kings, of lonely farming and fishing villages, of wild mountains and cruel coasts, of hardy people and long memories.

*  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.

It was extraordinary what a small piece of resistance could do for one's morale.

*  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.

No wit, no humour in those eyes, no sympathy, no gentleness. They only held a strange mixture of aggressive intensity and impersonal coldness. She was the educated, dehumanised female, the dedicated machine.

...the infallibility of evil was one myth he wasn't going to increase by believing in it...

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.

Further reading:

History Today - the end of the Greek Civil War
Child abduction by the Communists during the Greek Civil War: the Paidomazoma

Video on the Greek Civil War, a  British political documentary produced in 1986. Some graphic content - 'The Hidden War.'

Linking this book to Back to the Classics 2016, Reading Europe Challenge, and Mount TBR Challenge.


Cleo said...

A great review, Carol! I didn't know about her history. I have a few of MacInnes' books from my mom, but she's kind of faded from my memory. Thanks for the reminder and especially the reminder that her books are worth picking up. I'll have to look for them in my used book travels!

Annie Kate said...

Thanks! I have never read any of her books, but she sounds like an author worth reading.

Silvia said...

What a great read. I have not read this author either, but it sounds worth reading, as Annie Kate says.

Carol said...

One of her books is a free read for AO Year 11 - 'While Still We Live' set in Poland as Germany invades in 1939. It's also known under the title, 'The Unconquerable,' which is the one I have.

Heather said...

I love that you share these vintage authors. Will add her to the list of authors to be on the lookout for.

Carol said...

The Saltzburg Connection is one of my favourites from this author - a bit more suspenseful than the one above but I think I'd probably enjoy anything she wrote. Titan Books republished her novels more recently.

Dorothy Borders said...

I read some of MacInnes' books many years ago and I remember them as being quite fascinating. I'm not sure why I never got around to this one, but it goes on my TBR list.