Helen MacInnes' classic 1941 thriller, Above Suspicion, reissued (excerpt)

Titan Books is reissuing the thrillers of spy novelist Helen MacInnes, starting with Pray for a Brave Heart and Above Suspicion. Below, an excerpt from Above Suspicion, her first novel, which was published in 1941.

Richard and Frances Myles are preparing for their annual European summer vacation in 1939 when they are visited at their Oxford college by old friend Peter Galt, who has a seemingly simple job for them. But in the heightened atmosphere of pre-war Europe, nobody is above suspicion, in fact the husband and wife are being carefully monitored by shadowy figures.


The Visit

This June day seemed, to Frances Myles, very much like any other summer day in Oxford. She walked slowly along Jowett Walk, watching the gentle five-o’clock sun bring out the bronze in the leaves overhead. This was her favourite part of the road leading to her husband’s college. On her left the grey walls which hid the gardens of the Holywell houses were crowned with rambler roses. To her right were the playing fields with their stretches of soft green grass, and beyond them were the straightness of poplar, the roundness of chestnut and elm. Today there were only a few men practising at the nets: most of them were packing or going to end-of-term parties. Like herself, she thought, and quickened her pace. She was probably late again. She hoped guiltily that Richard would have enough work to occupy him, while he waited for her at College. He generally had… But it was difficult to hurry on a summer day like this: there were so many things to enjoy, like the twenty shades of green all around her, or the patterns of unevenly cut stones in the high walls, or the way in which a young man would catch a cricket ball and lazily throw it back. Little things, but then the last few months had made the little things important.

She entered Holywell, and hurried along its curve of old houses until she reached the Broad. There her pace slackened again and she halted at a bookseller’s window. Richard’s new book on English lyric poetry was well displayed. It was selling, too, which had been a pleasant surprise. (The bookseller had explained that away rather harshly: people were buying strange books now, it sort of soothed their minds.) She smiled to herself in the window at her totally unpoetic thoughts. A selling book would be a help towards another summer among the mountains. Another summer, or a last summer, she wondered, and turned away from the window. Once all you had to do was to decide what mountains you’d like to climb and then spend the winter writing reviews and articles to cover the train fares, and there you were. But each year it was becoming more difficult. She thought of past summers in the Tyrol, in the Dolomites. Once you could walk over mountain paths and spend the evenings round a table in the village inn. There had been singing and dancing, and lighthearted talk and friendly laughter. But now there were uniforms and regulations. Self-consciousness and uncertainty controlled even the jokes. Now you might only laugh at certain things. Now conversations with foreigners were apt to end in arguments.

Richard had discussed all this with her last night before they fell asleep. He had voted for one last look at Europe in peacetime, such as it was. There were still countries where one could breathe as one liked. Perhaps the premonition that this day was very unlike any other summer day for Frances Myles had laid its cold finger on her heart… Or it may have been the thought of Oxford as it might easily become next term. At any rate, the lightness had gone out of her step.

The young college porter was standing at the lodge gate. She tried to make her smile brighter than she felt.

“How is the new baby?” she asked.

He beamed with pride. “Just splendid, ma’am, thank you. Mr. Myles is waiting in his room. He has just ‘phoned down to ask if you had arrived. I’ll tell him you’re here.” He moved back into the lodge. Frances remembered he had joined the Territorial Army in March, just after the seizure of Prague. Nowadays she kept remembering details like that. She hurried through the quadrangle, and began the climb to Richard’s room.

The oak was sported. She thumped on its massive panels, and drew back as she heard Richard open the room door first before he could let the heavy oak door swing out. He was smiling, with that guess-what look.

“Hello, darling,” she said. “Quite like old times to sport your oak. Why all the precautions?” He wiped her lipstick off his chin as he drew her into the room, fastening the two doors behind them.

“We’ve a visitor, Fran.”

It was Peter—Peter Galt.

He grinned and held out both his hands. “Hello, Frances, you look quite startled.”

“Peter! But we thought you were in Bucharest. When did you get back?”

“Two or three weeks ago. I would have written you if I could. I’ve just been explaining to Richard. I’ve purposely not written you. And I am not staying with you, either. I am putting up at the Mitre.”

Frances turned to her husband in dismay. “Richard, what’s the matter with him?”

Richard handed her a glass of sherry. He refilled Peter’s glass and then his own, with maddening concentration, before he spoke. “Peter got into a jam.”

“A jam? Peter?” She sat down on the nearest chair. She looked so charmingly anxious under her ridiculous hat that Peter hastened to reassure her.

“Don’t worry, Frances. It all turned out rather well in the end. But it did make it necessary for me to be recalled.” He grinned, and added, “Ill-health, of course.”

“Of course…” Frances was less alarmed, but she was still curious. She waited for an explanation. It was Richard who said in a non-committal way, as he placed an ashtray beside her, “He got entangled with a spy.”

“Well, I only hope she was beautiful,” Frances said. “I mean, if you will do things like that you may as well make the most of it.” She smiled as she looked up at the correctly dressed young man balancing against the fireplace. She had always hoped that Peter would never get entangled with anyone who wasn’t beautiful. She watched his calm face and the shy smile, and wondered. To a stranger he would seem just another elegant minor secretary to a British Embassy.

“Unfortunately it was a he,” said Peter. “And, to be quite truthful, I didn’t get entangled with him. He got entangled with me.”

“You look such easy meat, really, Peter.”

“That was an asset anyway.”

“And so you had to come back to England.” Frances was still unable to take Peter quite seriously. “He isn’t after your blood, is he?”

“He can’t do that. Bucharest dealt with him. But his friends might think I learned too much before that happened.”

“But, Peter, you don’t mix that kind of—politics with diplomacy, do you?”

“He did the mixing. Now I am waiting for all the commotion to die down.”

Peter gave a good imitation of his old smile, but Frances, watching his eyes, was already revising her opinion about this visit. Something serious was behind it all. When she spoke her voice had dropped all hint of teasing.

“Is that all?”

Richard, sitting on the edge of his desk, gave a laugh.

“Out with it, Peter. It’s no good being diplomatic with Frances. She can see through a brick wall as quickly as anyone.”

Peter finished his sherry. As he looked from Frances to Richard he seemed to be making up his mind about something… Or perhaps he was deciding how to begin. They both suddenly realized the change in him. He was an older, a more businesslike Peter. And he was worried. His fingers played nervously with the stem of the sherry glass. He was choosing his next words with care.

“Frances is quite right. I am not in the F.O. any longer: I’ve been put on to other work. And that’s why I am here.” He glanced at his watch, and his next words were spoken more quickly. “I’m afraid this visit combines business with pleasure, and we haven’t very much time for everything I want to tell you. So you’ll understand if I begin abruptly… We haven’t the time for any build-up which would enlist your sympathy and make things easier for me. I’ll just have to start with the story, and hope for the best.

“First of all, I didn’t want to give anyone the idea that I have been in touch with you. So I didn’t let you know I was coming to Oxford, and I can’t stay with you. Even the porter at the lodge doesn’t know I’m with you: he thinks I am visiting old Meyrick. The reason is I have a job for you to do, and I hope you’ll agree to do it. It shouldn’t be dangerous; tiresome, perhaps, and certainly a blasted nuisance, but not actually dangerous if you stick to the directions.” He shot a quick glance at Richard, and added with emphasis, “You are just the people we need for it. You are both above any suspicion, and you’ve a good chance of getting through.”

Richard looked at Peter speculatively. “What on earth is it?” he asked. “And why?”

“I’d better tell you about the job first,” Peter answered. “The whys and wherefores can wait until the end. I am sorry if it develops into a kind of lecture, but I’d like you to get all the details quite straight. One of the reasons why I thought of you for this job, Richard, is your memory. If you’d take a mental note of things as I explain them that would save a lot of time.”

Richard nodded.

“The job is simply this. I’ve been hoping that you would go abroad as usual this summer, and that you’d travel by Paris, meet a man there, and then continue the journey as he directs. At the end of it you should be able to send us some information which we need very badly. That’s the general outline. Now here are the particulars. I’ll give you no trimmings—just the facts.

“When you get to Paris just do as you always do. Stay at your usual hotel, eat at your favourite places, visit the usual mixture of museums and nightclubs. Keep on doing that for some days—long enough, anyway, to establish your innocent-tourist reputation. And then, on Saturday night, visit the Café de la Paix. Sit at an outside table towards the left. Order Cointreau with your coffee. Frances will be wearing a red rose. Don’t notice anyone or anything in particular. About eleven o’clock Richard will upset his Cointreau. (He will be glad of an excuse not to drink it anyway, if I know Richard.) Your waiter will come and mop up. That and the red rose are the signal. A man will approach your table, and that’s the moment for one of you to speak. The sentence should begin, ‘Mrs. Rose told me we must see…’ and add the name of some place you’ve decided on. Pretend to talk; keep it all natural, but be on guard for the number which the man will give you somehow. That’s the key of this whole business. For if you go next day to the place which you mentioned, at exactly one hour later than the number which he gives you, you will get into real touch with him. And he has a message for you.

“It’s all very much easier than it sounds. He identifies you by the position of the table and the red rose and the upset glass of Cointreau, reaches your table at the time you expect him, hears the name of the place you’ve chosen along with the right sentence, and gives you a clue to the time for a meeting on the next day. Have you got all that, Richard?”

“Yes. But before we go any farther, why choose us? I mean, we shall be such amateurs for that job: we’ll probably mess it all up. There must be something fairly involved at stake, and it seems to me as if you needed someone with quick wits. I don’t know if mine have been sharpened well enough—in that way. As for Fran…” Richard shrugged his shoulders.

Frances only looked amused. “Darling, I love you,” she said. “Do go on, Peter.”

Peter took her advice.

“When you get the message it will probably be in some code. And that’s another reason why I want Richard to tackle this job. I can rely on him to get a meaning out of that message. His brain has had just the right training and discipline for that sort of work. Well, the message will direct you to another agent and he will direct you farther still, and you will find yourself passed on from agent to agent until you reach the chief of them. He’s the last one on the line, and he’s the chap we are worried about. That is the information we need.”

He paused, and watched Richard pour some sherry into his glass. Again Frances had the feeling that he was once more weighing his words very carefully before he spoke. His trouble was to tell them enough in the right order, without telling them too much.

“I think you’ll find the rest of this travelogue more interesting. We are now reaching the whys and the wherefores,” Peter allowed himself the suspicion of a smile. “You’ve heard of what is called the underground railway in Germany, haven’t you? It’s a version of the old Scarlet Pimpernel technique. It helps anti-Nazis to escape, and covers up their tracks. One of the brains behind it is the chief of this group of agents. On the side, of course, he collects information which has been very useful indeed. Until about five weeks ago we had the normal reports from him—accurate and regular. But since then we have had no really informative messages. Two of them, in fact, were dangerously misleading. Fortunately, we had other sources of information about these facts which made us suspicious, and we didn’t act on his advice. These suspicions were increased when two men, escaping from Germany by his route, disappeared completely. They have simply vanished into thin air.”

Frances put aside her glass, and leaned forward, cupping her face in her hands. Richard held a cigarette unlighted. The eyes of both were fixed on Peter.

“What we want to know is this—before the harvests are gathered in, to put it quite bluntly—does the man still exist, or has he been sending us false messages to warn us that things aren’t just right, or has he been liquidated? So your job is to follow the route directed by various agents, always keeping in mind that you are just the simple traveller, until you find him. The one clue I do know is that he will be an Englishman, the only Englishman in that chain of agents. I can’t help with his name or appearance because he has too many of both. In any case, the less you know, the easier it will be for you to play your rôle, and the better it will be for all of us. He probably won’t seem at all English when you meet him, but if you give him the correct high-signs, which the previous agent will pass on to you, you will find out that he’s an Englishman all right.”

“But why all this agent-to-agent business?” Richard asked. “Why doesn’t the Paris man direct us to him straight away?”

“The plan is his: he invented it to suit his own particular work. And it has been very successful. It’s been foolproof for a longer time than most systems. It’s simple enough. The Paris agent is the only stationary one, and that’s the reason why he takes so many precautions, just to safeguard himself. The others move about as their chief directs. It is just as well to keep moving, for they often work in Nazi-dominated territory. Each agent only knows the name and address of the man following him, and any information they collect can be posted along the chain of agents until it reaches the chief. Anyone who wants to get in touch with him must begin at the Paris end, and no one can begin at Paris unless he knows how to make the difficult contact with the agent there. There are only two sources which can direct anyone to manage that contact. We are one of them; the other is just as careful as we are. So you see there is some method in his madness.”

“And what about the information which he sends to you? He must have another line?”

Peter nodded. “Yes, and it’s a much more direct way, naturally. I knew you’d cotton on, Richard. Anything else which strikes you?”

Richard hesitated, and then, as Peter waited for an answer, he said, “The system is obviously pretty safe, except for one drawback. If the chief man himself is caught, then all information travelling out to him will get into the wrong hands. His agents might even be picked off by one if he were—persuaded into any confession. Not to mention the fate of the poor devils who thought they were escaping from Germany.”

“Exactly. That’s why the job has got to be done.”

“Your man must have been pretty sure of himself to think up that system, I must say.”

Peter said, “I suppose it looks that way, but you’ve got to take risks in his profession. It has been very much worth our while to take a chance on him. And, strangely enough, it is just this kind of system which gets the best results. Until now he has always been agile enough not to be caught; he has been doing this kind of thing, you know, since we were being pushed round the park in our prams. You may depend on one thing, Richard: he won’t talk. Anyway, you see how vital it is to know whether he is still functioning, before the volcano in Europe blows sky-high. We’ve got to be sure of him before then.”

“Yes, I can quite see that,” Richard said gloomily. “But I still think you need a professional man on the job.” It was a good sign, anyway, thought Peter, that Richard was still arguing about it. He was clearly not very much in love with the idea, but he was still at the stage of objections rather than that of a downright refusal. Peter wondered if he should tell them anything more. He thought wearily, “I’m devoted to both of them, but can’t they see, in God’s name, that I was counting on them to accept, or I wouldn’t have let them in on all this?” Yet people changed, and being a don at Oxford might very well make you too contented, too unwilling to act against your own security. Richard was waiting for his answer.

“We sent one,” Peter said briefly. “We should have heard from him by this time. When we didn’t I suggested to my Chief that we should try an amateur; that line served me well enough in Bucharest. A couple of innocents abroad might be able to get through all suspicion. The thing to remember is that you are not agents; don’t let yourself get mixed up in any sideline snooping. All we want to know is whether an Englishman is there or not. If the trail gets too hot, then just pull out of it, using your own good sense. If there’s any questioning, then stick to your story. You are just two holidaymakers having your annual trip abroad. There is one other point: your job will be finished when either you find the man or you’ve reached the sixth agent without finding him. He never worked with more in a line. You will have a margin of safety all through, because the contacting clues will be vague enough to let you have an out and your amateur status will be an additional help. That really is your strongest safeguard.”

Richard said nothing, but Galt, watching him closely, was satisfied. It wasn’t a comfortable, peaceful way of life which had held Richard back: it was the fact that Frances would be in this too.

“When you’ve finished, wire to this address in Geneva,” Peter said. He wrote some words quickly on a piece of paper and handed it to Richard, still looking undecided, worried… But Galt knew he had won.

“Better memorise the address and then destroy it,” he advised. “If you find your man, then wire, ‘Arriving Monday,’ or ‘Tuesday,’ or whatever day you actually saw him. If you don’t find him, wire ‘Cancel reservations.’“ He drew a deep breath. “Thank God that’s over,” he said. “Is it all clear, Richard?”

“I’ve got it memorised, if that’s what you mean. But look here, Peter, if you have really decided that I ought to do this job, don’t you think I’d better go alone? I’m not running Frances into any risks.” His tone was grim. Frances looked at him suddenly. So that was what had made him hesitate.

When she spoke her voice was low, but equally determined. “Richard, I am not going to be left behind.”

Peter said, “Unfortunately I agree with Frances. Since you’ve been married you’ve never separated on your holidays. It really would be better if you were just to do what you always do. And you’ll be safer with Frances because you won’t take risks if she is with you.” He looked anxiously at Richard. “I know it’s going to ruin your summer,” he began, and then stopped. He had said enough as it was.

Richard was staring at the red geraniums in the window box.

“It isn’t the ruining of it,” he said slowly. “Everyone’s holidays are ruined this year. But I don’t think we’d really be of any use.”

Peter was picking up his gloves and umbrella and his black hat. He was still watching Richard intently. Something seemed to decide him. He moved over to Frances to say good-bye.

“I would never have asked you if I didn’t think you could pull it off,” he said. “And I would never have asked you if the whole thing wasn’t so urgent, Richard. I’d have done it myself, except that the people we are working against have got me docketed since Bucharest. I’ll be on the files by this time. I thought of someone else, but your qualifications for this job are just what we need. I didn’t enjoy asking you, I may as well say… Time I was leaving now. I see I’ve kept you late for Frame’s party. I met him this morning in front of the Mitre, and he asked me to come along too.” He waved his hat towards the invitation card propped up on the mantelpiece.

“How long,” said Richard, “should this job take?”

“We allowed two weeks to our man, but he knew the ropes. We’d better say about a month. It will be safer if you don’t hurry things. You will have to spend a few days in each place to make it look convincing. Remember, I want you to steer clear of any suspicion or danger… For God’s sake, take care of yourselves.”

His voice was normal again by the time he had reached the door.

“ Good-bye, Frances; good-bye, Richard. See you when you get back.”

The door closed softly, and left a silent room.

Frances was the first to move. She pulled out her compact and powdered her nose. She readjusted her hat to the correct angle.

“You’ll do,” she said to her reflection in the mirror. “Come on, my love, we are three-quarters of an hour later than I had meant to be late… You’ve got it all memorised?”

Richard nodded. “That’s the least of it. Frances, this is the time to back out. Now.”

Frances rose, and looked at the seams of her stockings. She altered a suspender. “When do we start?” she asked.

“As soon as you have finished all your teaching?”

Richard looked at his wife’s pretty legs.

“Blast Peter,” he said, and took her arm as they left the room.

They talked of other things as they went downstairs.

© 1941, 2012 by the Estate of Helen MacInnes. All rights reserved.

Above Suspicion


  1. My parents had a lot of Helen MacInnes’s books in the house when I was growing up; the anti-Communist speeches seemed a bit shoehorned into some of them, but they were always great thrillers.  When I got to be an adult, I was a bit disappointed my life didn’t sweep into great exciting races and chases and spying and escapades in beautiful foreign locales like in MacInnes’s books, or Mary Stewart’s.

  2. Above Suspicion was my mother’s favorite book – I still have her copy and, like snailspace, I just assumed that my life would be like MacInnes or Stewart wrote it!  Spies! Thrills! Romance!

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