From My Shelves: Neither Five nor Three

Helen MacInnes; Neither Five nor Three From My Shelves: Neither Five nor Three

12 January 2018
I am following through on a New Year's Resolution to finally begin re-reading and posting favorite books from my library. And so I'm inviting you to peruse a few items...
Helen MacInnes is routinely categorized as a romantic suspense writer these days, but in fact, she was no such thing.  Hell, my dad introduced me to Helen MacInnes - in the same breath as Ian Fleming and Alistair MacLean. Nonetheless, rereading Neither Five nor Three can feel like a trip back to a century before Betty Friedan.  It is an underlying assumption of the book that even smart, educated women - one of whom wrote a thesis on Proust, the other of whom is a successful magazine editor - will willingly give up their jobs upon marriage for the greater satisfaction of raising children and maintaining a household. Even more off-putting is the way that the heroine, Rona Metford, simply hands over the letter that is the key to unmasking the entire conspiracy to the (male) authorities, without evincing the slightest curiosity as to its contents - despite the fact it was personally addressed to her.
MacInnes, embodying pretty much every<br/>
author's fantasy of a book signing.
MacInnes, embodying pretty much every
author's fantasy of a book signing.
Yet, MacInnes' personal life is not far off that of her heroines.  Married in 1932 to classics scholar and MI6 agent, Gilbert Highet, MacInnes dutifully followed her husband's career first to Oxford and then to Columbia University in the United States - while she quietly pursued her own career as the author of  21 espionage thrillers, one of which, Assignment in Brittany, was required reading for Allied agents sent to work with the French Resistance.  Not to mention the fact that her 1944 book, The Unconquerable, depicted the Polish resistance so accurately that she was accused of using classified information given to her by her husband.
The politics in Neither Five nor Three feel equally alien.  The main villains are, as might be expected in a book set in New York in 1950, Communists, complete with capital letter, and their plot is a McCarthy-worthy plan to undermine the people's faith in American values by spreading disinformation - in this case, by infiltrating the magazine industry.  Yet despite these dated attitudes, the conspiracy MacInnes details seems eerily prescient in this day of fake news and alleged Russian interference in our elections.  Even back in 1950, the villains strove not to control the nuclear arsenal, but rather the media.  And it takes only the smallest leap of imagination to see the similarities between the recruitment methods the Communists deploy in academia and in tony Park Avenue parties and our current political discourse on social media.
It is this very combination of complete similarity and utter difference that makes Neither Five Nor Three a fascinating read right now, for it creates an effect that Viktor Schlovsky termed "defamiliarization." (Here it is described in a passage that can only make you wonder why MacInnes thought so highly of the Russians' persuasive skills):
The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects 'unfamiliar,' to make forms difficult to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.
In other words, re-reading Neither Five nor Three forces us to step away from our own assumptions in order observe our own behaviors through the lens of characters whose attitudes are completely alien from our own.  And the result, one can only hope, is a more clear-eyed view of ourselves - as well as a renewed appreciation of Helen MacInnes.
© - Erica Obey
Photos © - George Baird