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Helen MacInnes – Decision at Delphi

decision-at-delphiAuthor: Helen MacInnes
Review by: David Stonehouse
Publisher: TitanBooks
Cost £7.99

The release of Decision at Delphi is part of Titan’s ongoing policy of bringing classics from the past back into print. Helen MacInnes was an author of post WWII spy novels. The books were highly regarded in their day and one, The Salzburg Connection, was given the big screen treatment in 1972. MacInnes, who died in 1985, trod similar ground to Graham Greene, with vivid travel writing capturing exotic locations providing the perfect backdrop for her complex espionage tales. So, if you aren’t familiar with MacInnes but already enjoy the work of Graham Greene, John Le Carre or even early Ian Fleming you will probably find her brand of storytelling right up your street.

Decision at Delphi is set in the Mediterranean and cruises through a few locations before settling in Athens for the bulk of the story. We begin with an American architect and magazine artist, Kenneth Strang, travelling to the Med to create illustrations of the ancient ruins and temples for a travel journal. He is partnered with Greek photographer Steve Kladas to collect the materials. The journey begins on ship and there is plenty to pique his interest on the way, a mysterious young Greek girl chaperoned by a fierce older woman, an unexpected extra piece of luggage, shady characters who seem to always be on the fringe and certainly not least, Steve Kladas himself who is only seen fleetingly and never seems to be where he is supposed to be.

Strang provides a solid central character, a decent moral man but also an innocent naive thrown into a deadly game of cat and mouse based on history and politics that he doesn’t really understand. Steve Kladas’ quirky unpredictability looks merely eccentric at first but, as people begin to disappear and bodies start to pile up, it becomes something very much more sinister. Before long Strang finds himself mixed up with diplomatic agents, Greek police and intelligence agents any of which could easily turn out to not be what they seem. Things are complicated even further when Kladas’ replacement arrives. The new photographer is the beautiful Cecilia Hillard and as she and Strang become romantically entangled the situation becomes even more dangerous for both of them.

The mystery all hinges on some rolls of film placed in Strang’s luggage by Kladas. These potentially identify war criminals from the end of World War II. The seething betrayals of the past – Nazi collaborators, communists, cowards and spies from the war, have not been forgotten and there are secrets that some people will kill to keep hidden. Strang finds himself in the centre of a violent feud between all these different factions, struggling to understand what is going on and without any idea of who he can really trust.

As a spy adventure it works very well. The historical/political elements of post war Greece are very well presented and the twists and turns of the plot are very satisfying. It is old-fashioned but in a good way – a window into a fascinatingly different time. The pace is leisurely by modern standards and Strang’s growing relationship with Cecilia is charmingly twee. However, MacInnes delivers moments of tension well and the violence, when it comes, is often shocking, unexpected and bluntly matter-of-fact.

Anyone who has enjoyed a good old-fashioned spy thriller will enjoy this and the fact that her all her novels are getting a reprint will be a treat to any fan of good espionage writing.

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