The author of TV Book Club's SPIES OF THE BALKANS returns with a hugely evocative thriller set in wartime Paris.
Frederic Stahl, born of Viennese intelligentsia, ran away to sea at the age of seventeen. Embarking in America, his matinee idol looks and Old-World charm took him to Hollywood, and a life of movies and women.
But by autumn 1939, the unease in Europe has spread even to Stahl's glamorous enclave. War has been declared, and though bullets and bombs are yet to fly, his decision to shoot a film in Paris seems ill-advised. The Parisians know this is their last spring and a time to be passionate.
Soon after his arrival, Stahl is drawn into a clandestine world of foreign correspondents, exiled Spanish republicans and, of course, spies of every sort. For as a celebrity from neutral America - who can travel across the continent freely - Stahl could be very useful indeed ... Returning to the Brasserie Heiniger, and some of the colourful cast from THE WORLD AT NIGHT, this is a headily atmospheric portrait of a continent in the grip of The Phony War.
Alan Furst's writing reminds me of a swim in perfect water on a perfect day, fluid and exquisite. One wants the feeling to go on forever, the book to never end. Such is it with this historical spy novel. From September 1938 to January 1939, the reader vividly lives through Paris's last stormy breaths of freedom before Germany's attack in 1940. Our unlikely hero is Frederick Stahl, 40, a handsome American movie star, not an action figure but everyone's favorite silver screen doctor or uncle or romantic leading man. Warner Bros. loans Stahl out to make a picture in Paris. He likes Paris, and he likes keeping Jack Warner happy. But there's a little known fact in his past that the Nazis can make much of born in Vienna, Stahl worked as a gopher for the Austrian legation in Barcelona at the end of WWI, and Austria had been an ally of Germany. So when officials in Germany's political warfare department discover Stahl will be in their sphere of influence, they alert their Paris section to put him on "the list" to be used. From movie studios to embassies, from parties with the untouchably wealthy to a sexy love affair with a sophisticated migr living in a tenement, Stahl finds himself caught between those who believe France must rearm to fight Germany, and those who are desperate for a negotiated peace. When Stahl refuses to support "peace," the Nazi threats begin. To retaliate, he becomes a secret U.S. courier, bravely carrying hundreds of thousands of Swiss francs into Germany and Morocco to exchange for intelligence about the Nazis. Reading Furst is the next best thing to having been in Berlin: "Uniforms everywhere.... This country was already at war, though enemy forces had yet to appear, and Stahl could sense an almost palpable violence that hung above the city like a mist." Like Graham Greene, Furst creates believable characters caught up, with varying degrees of willingness, in the parade of political life. And because they care, the reader does, too. And like Lee Child, Furst captures personality with insightful brush strokes: Stahl's father had "a face like an angry prune." Long on an ability to translate good research into great reading, Furst has only two downsides: although threats escalate, little comes of them, and when Stahl takes risks, they tend to deflate. For example, Stahl insists he's honor-bound to pursue the Nazis who've stolen the film crew's cameras, but he ends up waiting in a rowboat with a gun while others do the dangerous work offstage. And when the woman he loves is held in Budapest for interrogation, Stahl's solution is to use his box-office status to get her a visa at the U.S. embassy, then phones the William Morris Agency in hopes his agent can come up with an exit strategy. Still, my complaints are minor compared to the breadth and realized ambition of this seductive novel. Furst is one of the finest spy novelists working today, and, from boudoir to the beach, Mission to Paris is perfect summer reading. .
I have read all of Alan Furst's books and enjoyed them all, but "Mission to Paris" is not up to his very high standard. The word I always use when recommending Alan's books to friends is "atmospheric". He has the ability to make you feel you are 'there'; Mission to Paris lacks this atmosphere. Sadly, I didn't enjoy it as much as I hoped I might.