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Thursday, June 14, 2012

"Mission to Paris" by Alan Furst (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)


"It is the late summer of 1938, Europe is about to explode, the Hollywood film star Fredric Stahl is on his way to Paris to make a movie for Paramount France. The Nazis know he’s coming—a secret bureau within the Reich Foreign Ministry has for years been waging political warfare against France, using bribery, intimidation, and corrupt newspapers to weaken French morale and degrade France’s will to defend herself.

For their purposes, Fredric Stahl is a perfect agent of influence, and they attack him. 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 being run out of the American embassy in Paris."

INTRODUCTION:  Alan Furst is the acclaimed author of the Night Soldiers cycle of novels that mostly take place during the late 1930's and the early 1940's. The novels are all standalone except for a pair that follows the same main character, a small time French businessman/crook who becomes a Resistance hero, but they tend to cross-pollinate with secondary characters, places and events in common. 

Actually, Night Soldiers, the first novel in the cycle and which gave its title, is a little different as the main hero, a Bulgarian waiter in Paris (and many other things, but as a waiter he participates in an event that sort of resonates throughout all the 12 novels to date) starts relatively young and green and the action follows him to the end of the war, but the rest of the novels tend to have older men - late 30's to late 40's - as heroes, of different nationalities (Polish, Italian, French, Russian, Bulgarian, Greek, Italian, Austrian-American) all pretty accomplished in a way or another, with a taste for sophisticated and interesting women and who are mostly civilian - journalists, diplomats, navy captains, the small time businessman/crook mentioned above and the actor in the blurb here, though there are a few professionals too like the French intelligence officer in The Spies of Warsaw or the Greek policeman in Spies of the Balkans.

The books take place all over Europe  - again the titles are pretty indicative of that  and I can safely say that we get to see most of Europe in that crucial 1937-1940/1 period, though Paris plays the role of the positive attraction pole of the series, with Nazi Germany its dark opposite. The women of the series are also quite interesting - while none of the books features a female lead, there are a lot of very important women in the books, both as spies and event manipulators on their own as well as participants in the heroes' adventures and intrigue. Finally the bad guys tend to be mostly crude and arrogant but not stupid Nazis and their tools, though of course corrupt politicians, businessmen and Stalinist executioners populate the books also.

 I have read all 12 novels in the series so far, the first few in the late 90's when I discovered this wonderful author and the rest on publication and these books are of three kinds: pretty good, very good and superb, with Dark Star being on my all time favorite lists as one of those "read and read again and still want to read it another time novels" that populate that list.

At various times in the past several years, I planned to do an overview of the series and I hope this introduction will entice you to check the books especially that they can be read in pretty much any order except for the "duology" mentioned above.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS:  After the lengthy introduction above I could do a one paragraph review of Mission to Paris:  top-tier Furst with a return to the non-pro agent (an Austrian-American actor) like in Blood of Victory or Dark Voyage Relatively successful and charismatic male lead, the femme fatale who competes for his attention with ulterior motives, the less glamorous but more intellectual woman as main attraction, the dangerous spying game against the Nazis, game including a successful Russian emigre actress who walks on a knife's edge in the Nazi leaders lair, the quiet assassins, the well meaning but unable to do too much officially persons of importance, the Balkan corruption and of course here Paris is as much a star as the main characters and we get too see a movie production to boot too.

However let me add a few more details. Mission to Paris actually starts with a minor French bureaucrat who realizes his grave mistake in trying to cheat his Nazi masters of a good sum of money and then his bumbling attempts to escape their retribution give us the first view of some of the main villains of the piece, Nazi executioners Herbert and Lothar; the quote below should give you the first idea why Alan Furst's prose is so successful in its quiet understated way:

"Slim, well-dressed, quiet, Herbert made no particular impression on anybody he met, probably he was some kind of businessman, though he never quite got around to saying what he did. Perhaps you’d meet him again, perhaps you wouldn’t, it didn’t particularly matter. He circulated comfortably at the mid-level of Berlin society, turning up here and there, invited or not—what could you do, you couldn’t ask him to leave."

After this interlude we start with the main story and our hero, Frederic Stahl, makes his apparition on a liner that sails the Atlantic between America and France. 

"It was true that he’d “wandered about the world.” The phrase suggested romance and adventure—something like that had appeared in a Warner Bros. publicity bio—but it didn’t tell the whole story. In fact, he’d run away to sea at the age of sixteen. He was also not really “Fredric Stahl,” had been born Franz Stalka, forty years earlier in Vienna, to a Slovenian father and an Austrian mother of solidly bourgeois families resident in Austria-Hungary for generations. 


It was said of him by those who made a living in the business of faces and bodies that he was “a very masculine actor.” Stahl wasn’t sure precisely what they meant, but he knew they were rich and not for nothing. It referred, he suspected, to a certain inner confidence, expressed by, among other things, a low-pitched voice—assurance, not just a bass register—from an actor who always sounded “quiet” no matter how loudly he spoke. He could play the sympathetic lawyer, the kind aristocrat, the saintly husband, the comforting doctor, or the good lover—the knight not the gigolo."

 Why would such a successful Hollywood actor come to Europe in 1938 when the dark clouds are evident to anyone? Well, we immediately see some hints - what Jack Warner wants, Jack Warner gets - and from there the book just rolls and I simply could not put it down till the end. The loving descriptions of Paris and its high life in which Frederic is soon co-opted is definitely part of the attraction, but the novel also moves to Berlin, North Africa and even Hungary and Romania, so we cover quite a lot of territory physically too. 

Frederic Stahl starts quietly as almost literally the cliche American uninterested in Europe's troubles - despite his heritage, Frederic is content to be the good "quiet" American - but his distaste for the Nazi brutalities soon gets amplified when he is confronted directly with their unsubtle attempts to "recruit" him to do their PR and from there he is "in" the direct opposition game, but the question of "can he get out" becomes paramount as the pressure ratchets up...

Mission to Paris (top 25 novel of 2012) is vintage Furst and among his best work in the series, while being a good starting point for people not familiar with the wonderful world of Night Soldiers!


France said...

Allan Furst's WWII-era espionage novels are always entertaining and "Mission to Paris" is no exception. In the tradition of the author's previous work, there is a male protagonist working against the Nazis in a European setting (Paris and Berlin mostly this time), with a supporting cast of interesting characters (friends, lovers, collaborators and conniving opponents with vicious intent). Fans of the genre know that Furst's books are a kind of literary comfort food--this one is French bistro cuisine all the way.

More specifically, the focus of "Mission..." is film actor Fredric Stahl, an Austrian-born emigre who has built a successful career in Hollywood and finds himself, in mid-1938, loaned out by his studio to a French film company to star in a "Beau Geste" kind of flick that ironically is a commentary on the tragedies of war. Arriving in Paris, Stahl soon finds himself the center of attention for a group of German sympathizers bent on keeping France from opposing Hitler's ambitions in Europe. Stahl's own nascent political views are very much in the other direction and he is gradually dragged into a propaganda war that is heating up in Paris and elsewhere. All of this happens, while he undertakes the demanding work of making the film, "Apres La Guerre". Eventually, and very much against his own will and inclination, Stahl's position as a highly visible public figure leads to increasingly dangerous involvement with the Nazis.

VintageCollector said...

I would like to start reading the Furst novels. I've read snippets of rave reviews. Could you advise if there is an order I should take in which to read? Thanks Ed

Liviu said...

I would say that Night Soldiers and Dark Star should be 1/2; the rest in any order more or less except for the connected novels like the Paris ones - publication order works too


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