You know quality when you see it and with Alan Furst’s books set in Europe in and around World War 2 you know that quality is guaranteed. His new book, Mission to Paris is no exception. Frederick Stahl, an Austrian-born film actor based in the USA is sent to Paris in 1938 by Warner Brothers to star in a film about partisan politics in Eastern Europe. While leading a life of luxury in Claridges Hotel with all the trappings of celebrity, he is drawn into the complex politics of the time and before long finds that his life is in extreme danger.
Alan Furst always bases his books on impeccable research and there is tons of period detail in his descriptions of pre-war Paris, a moody city of contrasts with incredible luxury on the one hand and dingy back-streets populated by poor and desparate people who live in fear of their lives. For despite political accords and treaties, there is no doubt that the Germans are coming.
Within a couple of days of his arrival, Stahl is being courted by people who see his usefulness. German intelligence services are deeply embedded in the city and work via old friends and colleagues, as well as through sympathetic French Fascists who see the future of their country as a vassal nation dominated by a powerful neighbour but at least free from Communists and Jews.
He soon finds himself being invited by a powerful group of Germans to judge a short film festival in Berlin. At first Stahl resists this invitation fofr he is glad to have shed his German background and has no desire to do anything to support what he sees as Nazi thuggery. But he consults the American Ambassador who seems to think it would be no bad thing to attend, especially if he could make a small delivery while he was there . . . and as with all good spy novels, one simple task is never the only thing you are asked to do but merely the first and the simplest.
Berlin turns out to be a terrifying place. Stahl is in a privileged position, unlike the people he sees in the streets wearing a yellow star. The film festival goes well but coincides with a night of action against the Jews during which Stahl finds himself advised to stay in his hotel from where he observes bands of thugs running down the street outside. Later on he comes to understand that he was in Berlin during the terrible Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass.
Stahl finds himself embroiled in a complex affair of the heart which has dangerous political implications and before long we wonder whether his own life is to be in danger from the assassin we meet in the first pages of the novel?
Mission to Paris covers more than just the events surrounding Frederic Stahl. We engage with Russian and German agents, wealthy men and women at the highest reaches of Parisian society, other actors and members of the film crew and various others. We even read about life on a film location, the tedium of working with the demands of a perfectionist producer who will shoot the same scene over and over with slightly different adjustments to the lighting. But even when work is going well, we are always conscious of the sinister Herbert and his assistant, a Gestapo fixer who travels secretly and anonymously and has a devastating variety of tools at his disposal to do the Gestapo’s bidding.
Furst writes in a sparse and minimalistic way but captures the starkness of the times perfectly. As Stahl returns from a film location abroad, we read,
1.30 in the morning. Seen from the window of a taxi headed for the Claridge, winter Paris. On a bridge across the Seine, the street lamps along the balustrade were no more than ghostly blurs of light in the river fog. Deserted streets after that, wet from an evening rain, one café still lit, with one patron, a woman in a fur hat with a glass of wine before her. Winter Paris, Christmas coming, the Galeries Lafayette would have its toy train running in the window, the station roof glittering with granular snow. Stahl thanked heaven for getting him back here alive.
Paris in 1938 is a glitzy and glamorous place, but full of traps and dangers for those who find themselves embroiled in the political turmoil of the times. Alan Furst has the knack of placing his readers right there, turning the pages rapidly, one after another as the tension mounts. I am tempted to compare Furst with John Le Carré or Graham Greene but despite similarities he is really in a class of his own. A fine writer and a fine book to join so many other of his works, all of equal quality.
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