Mission to Paris, by Alan Furst

Through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program, I was fortunate enough to receive a pre-release copy of Mission to Paris, a new novel from highly regarded historical spy novelist Alan Furst. Furst specializes in World War II era fiction. Having reviewed other books in the program from less-established authors, starting Mission to Paris was like slipping into a warm bath – the prose fluid and accessible, without a jarring phrasing or word out of place.

Mission to Paris is the story of a somewhat famous actor’s trip to Paris, shortly before the outbreak of World War II. Fredric Stahl is Viennese-born, but lives in Hollywood now. As part of a cross-Studio movie deal, he finds himself sent to Paris to film a movie. A famous actor turned spy (this is a spy novel) could easily turn to cliché, but Furst easily humanizes Stahl, while staying true to the perks that would come with being a well-known actor. As Stahl crosses the Atlantic on an ocean liner, he finds himself on a deck chair with his arms around a married woman (Stahl is unsurprisingly successful with the ladies). And yet:

“They lay together on the deck chair, she in formal gown, he in tuxedo, the warmth of her body welcome on the chilly night, the soft weight of her breast, resting gently against him, a promise that wouldn’t be kept but a sweet promise just the same. Edith, he thought. Or was it Edna?”

In two sentences, Stahl is rendered as maybe a cad for potentially sleeping with a married woman, a typical actor who doesn’t even remember the names of women he’s with, and yet he sends her back to her husband without taking advantage.

Furst effortlessly re-creates the era. Starting the story on an ocean liner immediately creates context. The attention to period detail is deep without being boring. Furst includes verbatim a daily ship’s newsletter (I assume it is fictional), with world news (Neville Chamberlain meeting with Hitler, preparing to sell out Czechoslovakia) and sport news (Whizzer White the football player injured) right next to tomorrow’s shuffleboard schedule.

Pre-war Paris is also quickly and effortlessly evoked. Within pages, you are ensconced in a cafe tasting the croissants, out and about on the warm September Paris evenings….

“Walking slowly, looking at everything, he couldn’t get enough of the Parisian air: it smelled of a thousand years of rain dropping on stone, smelled of rough black tobacco and garlic and drains, of perfume, of potatoes frying in fat. A warm evening, people were out, the bistros crowded and noisy.”

And yet, bad things are afoot.

“On the wall of a newspaper kiosk, closed down for the night, the day’s front page headlines were still posted: CZECHOSLOVAKIA DECLARES STATE OF EMERGENCY.”

Mission to Paris is about the fall of Paris. Germany militancy is rising, and there are two camps in Paris, those who want to resist Germany and those who do not. Those who do not speak the language of peace: Rapprochement, Mutual Respect, Reconciliation, Peace, “avoid war at any cost”. But the implication – Capitulation – is painfully clear. Any many of those on the side of “Rapprochement” are wittingly or unwittingly in the service of the Germans.

What mission to Paris is really about is how easily one can be seduced to the wrong side by fair words, noble concepts and good intentions, together with bribes disguised as “speaking fees” or advertising budgets, and ultimately it’s about the lies one tells oneself to sleep at night.

Many well-known names are named by Furst as working to bring down the French Government – Taittinger of the famous Champagne, Hennessy of the famous Cognac, the Michelin brothers who led the tire empire. It’s almost painful to listen to the cocktail party chatter about the benefits of peace and avoiding war at any cost with the Germans, knowing what horror the Nazis will bring to the world. Stahl chooses sides – the right one – but as a famous personality is constantly beset by forces from both sides that want to use him. Along the way, he finds love, adventure, and the courage to do what’s necessary.

If you like historical fiction or spy novels, you will not be disappointed. Mission to Paris reads smoothly and rapidly with great characters and period detail, and, as with all great historical fiction, contains lessons and perspective for today’s world as well.

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