Alan Furst’s Mission to Paris is a well researched and interesting spy thriller set in Paris at the beginning of WW2. It features a Jewish emigre film star with limited Hollywood success who is loaned out to a French studio in the summer of 1938.
The blurb likens this book to Le Carré, and he is not my usual choice of reading, but we were about to hop onto the train to Paris for a few days before Christmas, so the title seduced me. There is a map of Paris inside and it was fun to keep on referring to this as I read. It’s that kind of book – seemingly accurate, factually, and precise in every way.
The hero is placed in a moral dilemma: born in Austria, and so from a German speaking background, the American film star is seen as a publicity asset by the nazis and is quickly absorbed into the German community in Paris. He is also Jewish, and repulsed by what he knows about Hitler’s regime. There is pressure to support the nazis, which he resists; more pressure is applied – subtle threats, hints about violence, blackmail. Finally he relents and flies to Berlin to present the prizes at a film festival, encouraged by the American ambassador who wants to use him and this trip to contact an informant. That’s the heart of the plot.
I’ve read a lot about WW2, but this pre-war period in Europe was quite new to me, and the writer does a good job of showing the insidious way nazi propaganda was used to demoralise France and undermine the attempts of various politicians to make France more ready for war. The use of the media, the roles of different newspapers, the use of bribery: all these are explored or at least explained in this novel. Some of the villains are shown in detail – particularly those in the French beau monde sullied by association with the nazi regime – and these are the best parts of the book.
That apart, Mission to Paris is fairly standard fare: the hero is sufficiently macho, whilst being vulnerable and sensitive; sex is a fairly prominent part of the narrative; there are villains who are simply caricatures – shorthand ways of moving the narrative forward – and the novel begins and ends with these.
I doubt if I’ll read another of Furst’s spy books, but if this is the type of thing you like, he is certainly a very competent and serious writer.