Mission to Paris
By: Alan Furst
Format/Source: galley courtesy of Random House via NetGalley
Late summer, 1938. Hollywood film star Fredric Stahl is on his way to Paris to make a movie. The Nazis know he’s coming—a secret bureau within the Reich has been waging political warfare against France, and for their purposes, Fredric Stahl is a perfect agent of influence. What they don’t know is that Stahl, horrified by the Nazi war on Jews and intellectuals, has become part of an informal spy service run out of the American embassy. Mission to Paris is filled with heart-stopping tension, beautifully drawn scenes of romance, and extraordinarily alive characters: foreign assassins; a glamorous Russian actress-turned-spy; and the women in Stahl’s life. At the center of the novel is the city of Paris—its bistros, hotels grand and anonymous, and the Parisians, living every night as though it were their last. Alan Furst brings to life both a dark time in history and the passion of the human hearts that fought to survive it.
I’ve always been meaning to read Alan Furst’s books–historical-espionage fiction set during/around World War Two and the Cold War–but for some reason I just never really got around to it. So naturally I was pretty excited to learn that I was approved of a galley copy of this novel from the publishers through NetGalley.
This book is part of the Books on France Reading Challenge 2013 that I am participating in.
As this is the first Alan Furst novel that I’ve read, the first thing that struck me was how it kind of reminded me of John le Carre’s works in a sense of the taut atmosphere, the quiet way in which the espionage activities are carried out. It’s not slick-and-suave, guns-blazing-and-car chases or epic confrontations like you see in spy movies; rather it’s realistic, with moments of tense waiting and the looking-over-your-shoulder sort of mood. The tenseness also comes out of the time period that this story is set in: the Nazis are becoming increasingly bold in their occupation of surrounding countries and France is living in perpetual fear of an oncoming war. There are spies and sympathisers at every turn, monitoring the situation and the overall feeling in society. Paris in this novel feels very cosmopolitan and reflects how central it was as a city for the glamourous, the well-off and the artists. But beyond that initial observation, Furst’s writing and mode of storytelling is wholly his own.
It was interesting to follow Hollywood actor Fredric Stahl as he navigates through this menage of curious but shady mix of characters, distinguishing between friend and foe, rubbing shoulders with Nazi party members and working with operatives and diplomats against the Nazis. At the same time he’s obviously trying to shoot a film, which was also interesting to read because the reader gets to watch how a Hollywood-produced movie is made abroad during the 1930s. The reader learns a lot about Fredric Stahl as he juggles between his acting career and his impromptu role as a spy: about his past, about his values and his strength of character as people try to use him (usually indirectly) to bolster their political cause.
The secondary characters were also interesting but they are not as developed as Frederic Stahl, in part because we follow the story through Stahl’s point of view. They are have their role to play in the story but their characterisations are interesting enough that they do not come off as flat on the page.
Mission to Paris is a fascinating and gripping read. The months leading up to the Second World War proves to be a promising setting for tales of espionage with insusceptible people stepping up and playing a role, doing something they would otherwise not normally do. The story itself kept me hooked; I wanted to know how far Stahl was prepared to go to help the Americans (and would-be Allies) against the growing Nazi threats and whether their enemies would find out. As the first Furst novel (no pun intended) I’ve ever read, I greatly enjoyed it and am looking forward to reading his other books. I highly recommend this title for fans of espionage titles, historical fiction and novels set in and around World War Two.