(Titan Books 2013, originally published 1976)
MacInnes, who was born in the UK and later moved to the US with her husband in 1937, wrote a number of spy thrillers between 1941’s Above Suspicion and 1984’s Ride A Pale Horse. Her husband was an agent for MI6 apparently even after the move to the USA, and his work evidently influenced the subject matter of her books. The early novels have the Second World War as a background, whereas her later novels deal with the Cold War, and are set in the US and in Europe. I’ve read a few of her books, and have enjoyed them, particularly for the settings, though my favourite is Neither Five Nor Three, set in New York, and on reading which was the first time I had really appreciated why Communism was seen as such a threat to American life after the war.
Agent in Place is set in the US and in France. Chuck Kelso is an idealist working for a policy unit called Shandon House which has been given charge of a NATO memorandum: Kelso steals the memo, copies the first part, which he considers the American public need to know, and returns the original the next day. However, he has made friends with a man called Rick Nealey, a Soviet mole, an agent in place, who photographs the second and third parts of the memo, which are a good deal more damaging to US interests (and in which Kelso has no interest), and which he forwards on to his contact at the KGB. Kelso’s actions inadvertently implicate his elder brother Tom, a well-regarded reporter, in the leakage, though Tom’s friends Brad Gillon and British agent Tony Lawton are sure that the leakage came from Chuck.
The second part of the book is set in the south of France, in Menton, where NATO’s agent in Moscow, Palladin, has escaped following publication of the memo, and is being kept safe. Tony Lawton, following up the transfer of Rick Nealey, in whom he’s become interested, to Shandon House’s French operation, becomes convinced that not is all as it seems.
The usual hallmarks of a MacInnes thriller are in place – civilians having to play their part alongside professional agents, double-crossings, the ruthlessness of Soviet agents, trade craft, and so on – and the whole thing is interesting in its subversion of the initial set-up. I enjoyed it, but I think the book suffers from being told from several different viewpoints, and, when one considers how well MacInnes usually portrays professional women in her novels, Dorothea Kelso, Tom’s wife, comes across as particularly wet. Maybe it’s because MacInnes was getting older, because I noticed that Karen, in Ride A Pale Horse (1984), was not a patch on some of the earlier heroines (such as Rona in Neither Five Nor Three of 1951) in terms of courage and resource, though unusually Karen is the main protagonist of her novel, and a highly respected journalist. It’s not just Thea, either, since Nicole, one of Tony Lawton’s colleagues, takes the revelation of the agent’s real activities much more emotionally and to heart than any of her male colleagues who were similarly duped. This leaves rather a sour taste to this reader, despite the excitement of the plot, which is revealed as something different from what was expected.
Because the novel’s seen from several different points of view, the characterisation tends to be thin, quite apart from the problems with the women I’ve mentioned. The settings are excellently written, though, with the sense of place which MacInnes conveys very well. The plot really heats up in the second part of the book, once in Menton – the stealing of the memo almost a McGuffin to get the real plot started. So, not one of MacInnes’s best, but still an interesting slice of espionage, Cold War style.