Friday, February 22, 2013

Some Thoughts on Assignment in Brittany

Helen MacInnes's books have begun to be re-issued in print and in ebook formats by Titan Books (this is a wholly good and wonderful undertaking), and I have begun to re-read them.  I started with the first one, Above Suspicion, published originally in 1941, and being a classic example of the amateur being caught up in an intelligence operation.  When I first read it (in the early 1970s), I thought it was an excellent book, and having just finished re-reading it, I find my original opinion unchanged.

I remember having a similarly positive reaction to her second book (Assignment in Brittany, 1942).  But as I have begun re-reading it, I have run into something that has given me pause.  A British intelligence agent, Martin Hearne, is being sent into occuppied France because of his remarkable physical appearance to a French soldier (Bertrand Corlay) who is currently recuperating in an English hospital.  Corlay is from the small town of Sainte-Deodat, unmarried, his father dead and his mother a semi-invalid.  Hearne is supposed to take his place and to report on German actions in that part of Brittany.

Hearne is asked (well, ordered) to undertake this assignment because his superior (Matthews) saw Corlay and jumped to the conclusion that it was Hearne.  The physical resemblance was that strong.

But we're expected to believe that anyone who gave this scheme a moment's thought could possibly have concluded it would work.  Matthews saw Corlay on a stretcher (broken hip), bandaged.  Yet he was sure enough of the resemblance that he formulated this plan.  Could the resemblance possibly extend to such things as physical mannerisms (which Hearne will not, in any event, have time to learn--he leaves in only a couple of weeks, and Corlay is hospitalized, and in bed)?  Voice (could a native speaker of English actually speak French well enough to impersonate someone well-known to his neighbors?)?  Could Hearne possibly learn enough to deceive the people of Sante-Deodat (including Corlay's mother), regardless of how well he has been coached?  Corlay is engaged to a young woman in Sainte-Deodat, with the engagement described by Corlay to Hearne as an arrangement, not a love match.  Even so, Hearne's ability to lead her to think he is really Corlay seems questionable.  And even if most of the villagers are willing to go along with the game, it only takes one to cause the whole scheme to implode.

And this is not a case of someone who's been away from the village for years (e.g., The Return of Martin Guerre or Brat Farrar), but someone who has been gone for (at most) a few months. 

I'm having a little difficulty accepting that anyone would have approved this plan.  (And, of course, it doesn't turn out as planned.)  But without approval, of a clearly hopeless undertaking, there is no book.

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