Authors and artists have swooned over Paris, the City of Light, for decades. Alan Furst, who has written some eleven other literary spy thrillers, is no exception. His most recent novel, Mission to Paris marries a traditionally-plotted story of espionage with an extended celebration of the joys of living in the world’s most stylish city.
If you have a taste for spy novels, or a fondness for Paris, you can’t go wrong with Furst’s latest.
The protagonist of Mission to Paris, Frederic Stahl, an American film star of Austrian origins who lived in Paris as a young man, has returned to the city in the late summer of 1938 to make a movie, as stormclouds gather other Europe. Stahl loves Paris: “being back in his old quartier was as though a door to heaven had been left open.”
We see Paris through Stahl’s eyes, and senses:
Walking slowly, looking at everything, he couldn’t get enough of the Parisian air: it smelled of a thousand years of rain dripping on stone, smelled of rough black tobacco and garlic and drains, of perfume, of potatoes frying in fat. It smelled as it had smelled when he was twenty-five.
Yet Mission to Paris is a spy thriller, so Furst must interrupt Stahl’s Proustian memories with conflict and danger. The movie star’s return to Paris is quickly complicated by a Nazi plot to make him one of a growing number of agents of influence in France arguing for appeasement. Furst has researched how the Reich Foreign Ministry looked to bribe, blackmail, and pressure potential recruits in French commerce, the press, and the government to undermine the French will to resist German aggression.
Ah, the French will to resist! The Allies and Charles de Gaulle pushed the myth of the French Resistance hard, but historians have generally debunked it. The historical record suggests that very few in France’s ruling elite actively resisted the Nazis, either before or after hostilities commenced. Widespread pacifism and defeatism reflected the searing wound that the brutal trench warfare of World War I had inflicted on the French psyche—Nazi propaganda and Fifth Column efforts really were superfluous. The French simply didn’t want to fight another war.
French Communists stopped any agitation against Hitler after August 1939 and the signing of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. Churchill was so skeptical of French resolve that he ordered the destruction of the French fleet in Algeria in 1940. (When he was asked, after the war, about the impact of French Resistance, Nazi leader Albert Speer responded: “What French Resistance?”)
Nonetheless, a few brave souls in France did oppose the Fascists, so it doesn’t require a complete suspension of belief to imagine that Frederic Stahl would resist being manipulated by the Nazis. This somewhat apolitical actor discovers that his decision—which doesn’t at first seem consequential—will alter his comfortable life, and the ensuing complications will drive the plot of Mission to Paris. Recruited for courier work by an American diplomat/spy, Stahl becomes involved in a risky intelligence operation underway in Berlin. When the “political warfare bureau” of the German Foreign Ministry realizes that Stahl is only feigning cooperation, he becomes a targeted man, and the last third of the novel finds him on the run along with an attractive refugee who has become his lover.
Furst has a marvelous ability to evoke time and place. He takes us to the Paramount studios outside Paris and captures the easy camaraderie of the actors on set; he depicts the open malevolence toward the French Republic among the guests at an elegant Seventh Arrondisement party of aristocrats and German sympathizers; and he describes the sudden violence when a student street march is attacked by right-wing thugs. Furst knows how to paint a word picture: “Winter Paris, Christmas coming, the Galeries Lafayette would have its toy train running in the window, station roof glittering with granular snow.” These superb snapshots of Parisian life make Mission to Paris more than just another genre thriller.
In some of his earlier novels Furst left the reader wondering about the fate of his main characters. Fortunately that’s not the case with Mission to Paris. Frederic Stahl’s brief foray into the world of espionage ends with a straightforward resolution. Furst knows that we’re rooting for Stahl and—wisely, I think—decides against an ambiguous (if not entirely plausible) ending and instead chooses to celebrate the moral courage of a inherently decent man confronted by evil.
Copyright © 2012 Jefferson Flanders
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