REVIEW: Assignment in Brittany by Helen MacInnes
He stared at the unfamiliar watch on his wrist. Three hours ago he had stood on English soil. Three hours ago he had been Martin Hearne, British Intelligence agent. Now he was in Nazi-occupied Brittany, posing as Bertrand Corlay, with the Frenchman’s life reduced to headings in his memory.
Hearne looked down at the faded uniform which had once been Corlay’s, felt once more for the papers in the inside pocket. He was ready. From now on he was one step away from death…
The Queen of Spy Writers returns in a stunning series collecting all of her greatest works! Titan kicks off with Assignment in Brittany; the gripping tale of an undercover operative deep in Nazi-occupied France.
When Helen MacInnes’s name is discussed, usually this book is mentioned. I’ve had mixed success with her books up until now so decided to try one that comes so highly rated. I’d say it’s much more an action/spy story but the understated romance is worth waiting for.
It begins in media res with Martin Hearne about to parachute into occupied France. Meticulously he mentally reviews the situation: his miraculous resemblance to an injured Frenchman brought to England after Dunkirk, his superior checking and rechecking the man’s background all the while slotting this mission into the greater whole of discovering exactly what the Germans will be up to, his memorization of the man’s life and his small village, and his own knowledge of Brittany. With a wave signal of the pilot’s hand, he’s off, jumping into the empty night sky, frantically hoping he won’t end up in some gunner’s sights.
No one is expecting Hearne, indeed he hopes to quietly slip back into the village as a man injured during the fighting and now returning home after the Armistice. Corlay’s information proves accurate and Hearne’s undoubted resemblance to him – aided by his anal superior’s attention to detail – eases his way. Within hours he’s gathering information and data which he carefully records to send back to England.
Well, most of the Frenchman’s details are correct but he left a few very important things out which adds to Hearne’s nimble footed juggling to avoid the many and varied ways he could be unmasked. Quick thinking and the ability to read the moment and not overreact keep him a step or two ahead of the danger but not for long. He’ll find that something he never expected is what will ultimately give him away to his “mother” and “fiancée.”
Another unexpected snag appears in the person of an American reporter who was briefly interred by the Germans before escaping and who is now heading for the coast but too weak to continue. While not breaking his own cover, Hearne and the members of the Corlay household aid and hide Myles before Hearne tries to sneak him down to another village and a fisherman reputed to smuggle people out. Things go terribly wrong and highlight the new reality of France under German occupation.
None can be trusted even among long term acquaintances and co-workers. Innocently involving anyone could lead to arrests. Frenchmen have already been shot as reprisals. There are those who just want to be left alone, those who despise the Germans and those who are for varied reasons willing to lick their boots. Hearne knows that the oppression has only just begun and anything he can do to sew discord and make life difficult for the Bosch will ultimately aid the war effort. Seeing how the Germans are already sneering at their “allies” and arrogantly imposing martial law just adds to Hearne’s determination.
Worse is to come as Hearne is betrayed by an unlikely source and falls into the hands of a determined SS officer whose chilling smile doesn’t reach his eyes. At this point, I was glued to the page. Some of the earlier details on locations and geography had frankly gotten a bit too involved and long winded. But in the action scenes or when danger lurked, the tension of the book was palpable. How would Hearne be rescued without putting the entire village at risk? How could this badly injured man hope to make it to the coast and back to England? How was justice going to be done? And what about the romance?
I won’t give away any more details but everything that needs to happen does and I can see why this book is so highly recommended. Now I’m sitting and looking at MacInnes’s lengthy backlist and saying, “what next?” B+