The much-heralded ITW project THRILLERS: 100 MUST-READS is scheduled to be published by Oceanview this July, debuting at ThrillerFest. To whet your appetite for this essential book, we’re going to feature a series of short interviews with various essayists in upcoming issues. This interview by Hank Wagner, co-editor of the collection, is with ITW co-founder Gayle Lynds, who contributed a heartfelt tribute to Helen MacInnes in her essay on MacInnes’s classic, Above Suspicion.
You wrote about Helen MacInnes’s Above Suspicion. Was it your first choice to write about? If so, why? Does it fulfill your personal definition of a “must read”?
Before I read Robert Ludlum, the quintessential American spy thriller author, I read Helen MacInnes, who brought the traditional British espionage novel to the U.S. and added a Yankee robustness and complexity to it. Today she is largely forgotten, but she was the literary legend with astronomical sales figures that Ludlum, le Carre, and Forsyth had to catch. Above Suspicion is definitely a must-read, because it is not only a fine novel, it was the beginning of the Americanization of the spy novel.
HW: If you were re-reading the novel, how long ago did you first read it? About how old were you when you read it? What immediate impact did that first reading have on you? What influence did the book have on your career or your writing?
I stumbled across Above Suspicion when I was in my early twenties, which was the first time I read it, in paperback. The book was a revelation to me — the realistic espionage, the true-to-life relationship between Richard and Frances Myles, and the exciting derring-do. I’d cruised through a few of the British writers, but MacInnes was different, better in many ways.
Her influence on me was enormous. She proved that espionage tales set on the global stage were compelling, and ultimately that was what I wanted to write.
What was it like re-reading the book? Was it as good as you remembered? Did the novel age well? The language? Were you able to step back and read it like a reader, rather than a professional writer?
I was nervous about rereading the book after so many years, and was delighted to discover it holds up. The story is set in Europe just before the start of World War II, a topic that is still written about and published widely to great success. MacInnes’s writing style isn’t grandiose, as some were in those days, but instead smooth and understated, moving lightly and swiftly. Her dialogue is crisp and revelatory of characterization. And her action scenes are vivid and physical, inducing an accelerated heart beat in the reader.
Given that you had a word limit for your essay, is there anything you’d like to say about the book that you didn’t get to say in the essay?
In the largest sense, authors are irrelevant. What matters is the work they produce. And although we are often fascinated by authors, we sometimes forget they are real people with pasts not unlike their readers.
One of the bits of information I particularly enjoyed about MacInnes was that as a young woman she spent five years in what some would consider a mundane job — a library cataloguer. And of course in those days we are talking tall stacks and long rows of anonymous little drawers filled with little cardboard catalog cards. Still, it must have been great, since the job was with the Ferguson Collection at the University of Glasgow — some 7,500 volumes mainly on alchemy, chemistry, the occult, witchcraft, and free masonry. What fun she must have had contemplating all of those subjects and delving into the books whenever she could. And yet she ended up writing spy novels.
What’s it like to not only participate in this book, but also to have one of your own works (Masquerade) selected as one of the 100 Must Reads?
In a word, humbling. To be among such greats is something one aspires to, but yet dares not quite dream.
To see what Gayle had to say about Above Suspicion, be sure to pick up a copy of THRILLERS: 100 MUST READS when it debuts in July during ThrillerFest. One hundred of your colleagues writing about one hundred classic thrillers make this book “must” reading.
Hank Wagner is a prolific and respected critic and interviewer. His work regularly appears in such publications as Mystery Scene, Cemetery Dance, Nova Express, and The New York Review of Science Fiction.