Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Eyes Have It

By Pat Browning

I had a raging ear ache all week. Friday I gave up and went to see a doctor, taking along a book to read -- PRELUDE TO TERROR by Helen MacInnes, a 1978 Fawcett Crest paperback. International intrigue and art theft, set in Vienna and Budapest.

Couldn’t miss. I’m fascinated by the looting of art that went on during World War II. I was a tourist in Budapest and Vienna in 1979 so the setting would be a thrill. The book turned out to be a good choice, but not for the reasons I picked it. I’m still trying to read it. It is now Saturday night and into Sunday morning. I’m on page 150 and I still don’t know what’s going on.

MacInnes was a longtime best selling author before her death in 1985. Several of her books became movies. Her 1968 book THE SALZBURG CONNECTION oozes with atmosphere. Not so, PRELUDE TO TERROR. So far, it’s like a skeleton. You have to imagine the flesh.

If the author were anyone but MacInnes I would simply turn to the ending and save myself a slog through the entire book. But I keep reading. Surely there will be a surprise, a shock, a twist. Until then I’m easily distracted. Is that an ant walking across the sidewalk?

The hero is Grant, an American art expert, in Vienna to buy a famous Dutch masterpiece for a reclusive art collector. The complication is that the painting is being sold on the sly by a Hungarian trying to escape to the West. Since the Cold War government of Hungary owns all art in private hands and looks askance at citizens trying to escape – well, you see the problem. This may turn out to be the longest set up in literary history.

There’s a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, involving the State Department, the Israeli Mossad, unidentified spies in disguise, cryptic messages and absolutely no eye contact. Don’t turn around … don’t look at me … pretend you don’t see me … Grant can’t figure it out and neither can I.

On page 67, a sentence gets my attention: “If I were a Viennese, thought Grant … I’d always be conscious that Czechoslovakia’s barbed wire and Hungary’s armed watchtowers were less than thirty miles away.”

A cloud of memories flies up. 1979: I remember Hungary’s borders. Our tour guide gave us detailed instructions on how to fold our passports and visas, what to say, how to avoid eye contact. Above all, avoid eye contact. Scared us half to death.

And then a young soldier boarded the bus and walked slowly down the aisle, checking papers and avoiding eye contact. He was sweating. He surely wasn’t more than 18, and he looked scared half to death.

My impression of Budapest was, that in spite of its history, beauty, Gabor sisters and magnificent Hilton Hotel, its people were whistling past the graveyard. At the Citadella, an old fortress overlooking the Danube, the walls were pocked with shell holes and there was a towering Russian statue on the roof.

From a travel agent in the Hilton, I learned that Hungarians could leave the country once every three years, but could only take the cash equivalent of $40 with them. Catch 22. Hungarian eyes were a little wary, a little sad.

In Spain in 1975, eyes were merely watchful. The old dictator Franco was on his deathbed. Spain was a country of dark eyes, watching, waiting. The next time I went to Spain, Franco was dead and the country was wide open. Japanese tourists were hogging the best seats in flamenco clubs, and newsstands were actually displaying girlie magazines. Give Franco credit for grooming a young Juan Carlos to take back the throne. Apparently it was a peaceful transition.

For a writer, eyes can speak volumes. One of my few books on writing is EYE LANGUAGE: UNDERSTANDING THE ELOQUENT EYE by Evan Marshall, first published in 1983. He published THE EYES HAVE IT, an updated version, in 2003. The chapters appear to be the same: “ … loving and lying eyes, the etiquette of staring, the ‘evil eye,’ pupillometry, iridology, trends in eye adornment, and ‘the vital blink.’”

You see what I’m up against – a thriller set in Budapest and Vienna that reminds me of everything except Budapest and Vienna. But I keep reading.. Surely there will be a surprise, a shocker, a twist and … somebody … will … make… eye … contact …


Helen Ginger said...

It would seem that the only eye contact being made is your eyes reading the book. It's sad when you start a book with high hopes, only to be disappointed. I admire you for continuing to read. I would most likely give up.

Straight From Hel

Chester Campbell said...

You've got my curiosity up, Pat. I'll have to go back and read PRELUDE TO TERROR. It's one of many Helen MacInnes books I have. I don't remember having a problem with it. I was really hooked on her books and read all of them I could find. The prices on those old paperbacks are really something. PRELUDE was the most expensive at $2.50. NORTH FROM ROME was only $1.75. Great story!

Anonymous said...


The action picks up on page 156 with the auction and attempted switch of the real painting with a fake. Once the story gets rolling, the last and choicest bit takes place in the Vienna Woods, a favored tourist destination in the late 1970s. Descriptions are lush, characters real, and a pounding conclusion leaves the door open for a sequel. It’s almost as if two different people had a hand in writing this novel.

Prelude to Terror is the first of a trilogy. The next two are Hidden Target and Cloak of Darkness. All feature the American intelligence agent named Robert Renwick. I'm disappointed that they don't continue with Grant. I kind of liked him.

I have both Hidden Target and Cloak of Darkness -- in hardcover! Months ago a DorothyL member cleaned out her bookcase and sent me a whole bunch of MacInnes books, mostly paperbacks.


Anonymous said...


It's an interesting book in spite of my objections. See my comment to Chester.

The book is dedicated to her deceased husband,and I'm wondering if maybe he had a hand in writing it and she kind of fell apart without him. Pure speculation, but it's almost as if two different people wrote the book.


Ben Small said...

Pat, isn't Franco still hanging on somewhere? Thanks. I really enjoyed this one. Hope your ear's feeling better.

Anonymous said...

Franco is probably hanging on in spirit.Otherwise, he died in 1975.

Chester Campbell said...

At 106 he'd be a little shaky, I suspect.

Jean Henry Mead said...

A great article, Pat. I'm fascinated by both books and must order the eyes book. Thanks for bringing both books to our attention!