Sort of disapponting

It's always a bit of a shame when you read a novel by a writer you like, and it doesn't quite come up to scratch. I and my true love is a decidedly odd and rather frustrating read.

If you've never come across the author, Helen MacInnes, before, she's worth a read. MacInnes grew up in Scotland but spent much of her life from the 1940's onwards in the United States. Some time ago I'd read The Venetian Affair and thoroughly enjoyed it. MacInnes' style is somewhere between Eric Ambler and Alistair Maclean; and at her best she can compete with either of them. Her earlier novels were very highly rated, perhaps not least because it is suspected that she had substantial input from her husband, who was a serving member of MI6.

Her life in America at the height of the Cold War fed into her fiction. Although she was innately conservative, her literature remains firmly opposed to tyranny and dictatorialism, placing her in an unusual position as an anti-Communist backlash started in America following the end of the Second World War. This perhaps accounts for the odd nature of I and my true love.

Payton and Sylvia Pleydell appear to be the perfect diplomatic couple, holding court at their Georgetown property. In fact Payton is manipulative and reactionary, and Sylvia is still in love with the Czech, Jan Brovic, who she met towards the end of the war. When Brovic turns up again in Washington, Sylvia makes plans to leave her husband. But is Brovic in it for love, or is he working for the new regime?

It's a curiously unsatisfying read. The reader is unsure of Brovic's motivation, and remains unsure throughout the book. Payton Pleydell comes across as a thoroughly unpleasant character, as do many of the career civil servants that flit through the pages of the book. The female characters are strong but easily manipulated; while only two of the male characters are likeable and willing to risk their own careers to do the right thing - the career soldier, Bob Turner, who, out of all of the characters except for Brovic has real experience of the evils of the Cold War; and minor intelligence man, Martin Clark, who is more concerned with doing the right thing for his friends and country than his own personal ambition.

The characters are generally unpleasant and paper thin; and the ending feels as though it's been tacked on hastily. As a romance it's not quite good enough, and as a spy thriller it feels patchy and ill-constructed. What is there to like about it? It's actually a pretty good read in terms of painting a picture of the "Reds under the beds" paranoia that gripped America in the 1950's. The sense of suffocation, and the uncertainty of who can be trusted are well portrayed, but as a thriller and as a romance it left this reader cold.


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