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by Alan Furst
Weidenfield & Nicholson, June 2012
272 pages
18.99 GBP
ISBN: 0297863924

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

In 1938, successful Hollywood actor Frederic Stahl, born Franz Stalka in Vienna, arrives in Paris to make a film at the request of the head of Warner Bros. Stahl soon finds himself courted by expatriate Germans, and their French friends, with a Nazi agenda. These groups seek to undermine any persons or organisations standing up for resistance to foreign aggression, by underhand means if necessary, and manipulate events and the media to generate pro-Nazi propaganda.

Stahl is keen to oppose such influences, but not sure that he can make a difference, and feels ill-equipped to play an active role. Such is his stature in Hollywood, however, that Berlin takes an interest in securing his support, and if he plays along he may have the opportunity to contribute - but the game is a dangerous one and his adversaries very powerful.

MISSION TO PARIS follows eleven previous books by Alan Furst, all set in Europe in the years before and during the Second World War. Each stands alone, although readers of his previous novels will recognise certain characters and locations, like the Brasserie Heiniger in Paris. The spy theme reoccurs, but there are no over the top James Bonds, rather believable men and women caught up in a political maelstrom, who are called upon to make moral judgements and to take extraordinary personal risks.

Some of Furst's central characters are professional soldiers or agents, but others are journalists, film-makers, or in this case an actor, drawn into a world of secrets and skulduggery. Invariably the protagonists are well-drawn, and the dialogue convincing. The Nazi party and the efficient mechanisms put in place to achieve its ends are outlined with skill so that the reader is only too well aware of the dangers involved in opposition; consequently the risks accepted by protagonists create terrific tension and truly exciting points of crisis.

One of the most appealing things about Furst's work is the way he brings to life the streets of European cities, above all Paris, in the 1930s. No doubt Furst knows Paris well, and has done extensive research, but his novels bear his expertise lightly. He manages, in a few sparing but telling details, to transmit the essence of the places his characters visit, and so well does he convey the sounds, sights and smells of the city that we come to feel we know it well. Immersion in the atmosphere of the past is brilliantly achieved and a testament to the skill of the author.

MISSION TO PARIS is the first of Furst's books with a US connection, and it may be that this is in pursuit of American readers who may find it easier to become involved in a book set in 1930s Europe where the protagonist is at least part-way American. This theory is supported by the repetition of even simple French phrases in English, which can seem a little unnecessary, and the degree of naiveté of the protagonist on first arrival. If these minor concessions help to bring Alan Furst to a wider audience, however, it is difficult to begrudge them; this is writing of real quality.

§ Chris Roberts is a retired manager of shopping centres in Hong Kong, and now lives in Bristol, primarily reading.

Reviewed by Chris Roberts, September 2012

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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