Alan Furst’s thrillers have been compared to le Carré’s, which does neither author much service. His espionage novels are set mainly in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s. They don’t form a series, though there are connections between their characters. Most of them explore the choices forced on ordinary people whom the current of history has washed up on the murky shores of intelligence-gathering.
Not that Frederic Stahl, the main character of Furst’s 12th spy novel, Mission to Paris, is exactly ordinary. He’s Viennese by birth and, after a varied career, has turned to acting. In the summer of 1938, a few months after the Anschluss, he’s a resident alien in Hollywood: a rising filmstar in the Cary Grant mould, he specialises in playing ‘a warm man in a cold world’. The story kicks into action when his studio, Warner Bros, loans him to Paramount in Paris to make a film called, rather poignantly, Après la Guerre.
But Paris is not the city that Stahl knew in the 1920s and nor is the Warner Bros loan as straightforward as it seems. France is a febrile, paranoid place where the threat of a new war is on everyone’s minds. Through the Ribbentropburo of the Reich Foreign Ministry, the Germans are doing their best to recruit agents of influence who will sway the French debate between rearmament and appeasement. Money is no object; and if force is needed, the Gestapo will oblige.
Stahl is a prize worth winning. A French-speaking, Austrian-born Hollywood leading man would make a useful mouthpiece for the Nazis’ political warfare in both Europe and America. First they try to woo him; later, they become more ruthless. Stahl is not overtly political at the start of the novel. But events combine with his essential decency to change his mind.
Through a contact in the American embassy, Stahl helps to channel intelligence to the White House, an activity that takes him to Berlin, where from the comfort of the Hotel Adlon he smells the burning and hears the breaking glass on Kristallnacht. Later, filming in Morocco and then Hungary, the violence comes even closer to home. To make matters worse, his romantic entanglements — with a sexy but vulnerable French woman and a German refugee — are implicated in his actions.
The loyalties of Furst’s relatively straightforward characters are never in doubt for long and they tend to retain their illusions. Mission to Paris (a grimly pedestrian title) has its blemishes. It begins with a quasi-prologue that might usefully have been left on the cutting-room floor, and the prose can sometimes be clunky.
But the blemishes count for very little. In Stahl, Furst has created an interesting central character who, for all his quiet glamour, works as a sort of Everyman. The novel gives a vivid sense of what it must actually have been like to live in Paris in those strange, unhappy months before the outbreak of war, not least because Furst has such a minutely detailed grasp of the historical context (everything from the food on the menu at Maxim’s to the day-to-day routine of the French film industry). The result is both memorable and wonderfully readable. It also leaves you hungry for more.