Thursday, June 06, 2019

35. Horizon by Helen Macinnes

I kind of feel that I need a cuff in the back of the head for having only read Helen MacInnes at the age of 50.  She is a giant in the field of espionage thrillers.  Now that I have read one of her books, I can say that it is at the very least as competent and entertaining as many of the other mainstream authors of that genre.  I am not sure why I neglected her before. I honestly want to say it is the same reason I hadn't read any Alistair Maclean, that she was just too mainstream and popular.  It is entirely possible though, that there was an unconscious bias in that she was a woman.  I can say that Horizon was easily superior to both the Maclean's I read (except HMS Ulysses), though those were his later works and generally considered inferior.

Horizon starts out in an Italian prison camp near the end of WWII, at the very northern end, near the border with Austria.  I knew very little about Tyrol, though I had vague memories studying the conflicts there during the war.  As portrayed richly by MacInnes, it is is its own culture, more Austrian in language and culture, but still considering themselves independent from both Italy and Austria, as well as oppressed by both.  The whole beginning sequence is great, where the protagonist, two-time escapee is planning his third, when the local guards abandon their posts and the men take over the prison. He is weirdly conflicted because his escape chance was ruined and it is suggested that he is kind of a rebel in general and just wanted to be on the run rather than reunited with the army.  He was a painter in peacetime.

Instead, he gets sent up to the South Tyrol to hide out there and act as a liaison for a potential allied invasion, to ensure they meet with the right local people (those waging a quiet resistance against the Italians and now the Nazis now that Mussolini's government has collapsed).  You get a great portrait, both physical and social of this part of the world.  The locals are quiet, independent mountain people.  You also get some classic WWII nazi baddies, coming in like they are liberating the Tyroleans from the Italians, but with an even more sinister and aggressive plan to take the menfolk for their last gasp arms productions.

My only frustration with the book was the characterization of the main character.  Annoyance and frustration are not pleasant emotions to read about in a book and he seemed constantly annoyed and frustrated right from the beginning, without any real background to understand why.  Yes, his escape was thwarted, but so what, the entire prison was liberated.  You slowly realize that he is kind of a rebel and the arc of his character is that he finds a positive role to play and comes to accept it.  It just wasn't developed on a sound foundation so you don't really connect with him. The locale, other characters, intrigue and action were all really good, so it is forgivable.  Good stuff and a new author for me to pick up.

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