MISSION TO PARIS
By Alan Furst
Random House, $27, 272 pages
The exploding world of pre-World War II Europe is where this author is at home. Alan Furst is a seamless espionage writer who moves with subtle control through scenes of mounting drama as Paris waits for the ax to fall in 1938.
“Mission to Paris, his latest spy novel, is an excellent example of how to build slow psychological suspense as the Nazi claw closes inexorably over Parisians. An Austrian-born American movie star, Fredric Stahl, is the author’s cat’s paw, demonstrating how far and how fast Hitler’s minions could move to achieve an objective. Stahl has gone to Paris to make a movie and is pleased about it. He is a handsome film star and instantly becomes a center of social importance. He also immediately finds himself coping with the sleek menace of social gatherings already infiltrated by Nazi sympathizers overshadowed by the Gestapo.
Stahl is accustomed to attention and enjoys it. He is on loan from a famous studio to make a movie for Paramount. He has some knowledge of the cauldron that France has become. What he is unaware of is that the Nazis not only know who he is - and his Austrian background - but they view him as the kind of conduit who can be of assistance in influencing neutral America.
He is also targeted, however, by a spy service set up by President Franklin D. Roosevelt that reflected the beginning of American political recognition of the global disaster that lay ahead. J.J. Wilkinson, a quiet diplomat in the American Embassy in Paris, explains the facts of the situation to Stahl, warning him to protect himself. Wilkinson emphasizes that he isn’t suggesting the actor should become involved in spying on the Germans. Spies had to have “nerves of steel” he explains, presumably viewing Stahl with a hopeful eye.
Stahl has no wish to become an intelligence agent, yet he is also bitterly opposed to the German assault on Jews, intellectuals and anyone else who doesn’t agree with Hitler.
Of course, a spy is what Stahl becomes, however reluctantly, and he proves remarkably good at it. In that role, he accepts a German request that he go to Berlin to an awards ceremony and carries with him espionage money. In Berlin he meets with Olga Orlova, a Russian actress who is a full-fledged intelligence agent working at high risk against the Nazi regime. And it is also in Berlin that Stahl is told not to leave his hotel that night.
It is one of Mr. Furst’s talents that he blends historical fact with his fiction. Stahl notes as he walks in the streets of the city people who wear a yellow star stitched to their coats. And the glow of fire in the sky and the sounds of destruction that Stahl hears in the night turn out to be the infamous Kristallnacht when shops and properties are destroyed as Nazi terror is launched against the Jewish community in Berlin. The intelligence errand is carried out and Stahl returns to Paris to make the movie, having temporarily pacified the Nazis and left a good impression on the fledgling spy operators within the American Embassy.
Characterization is one of Mr. Furst’s strong points, and while some of his Nazis lean toward caricature, he paints memorable portraits of strong and often savage women. Like the evil Baroness von Reschke, who is part of the German machine, and the enchanting French socialite Kiki de Saint-Ange, a woman who has no illusions about either the war or men. She predicts candidly and probably accurately that Stahl will remember her as a girl he knew in Paris.
Stahl does become involved in a serious romance with Renate Steiner, an emigre fleeing from the Nazis. Yet the novel is strongest when it depicts Stahl’s struggle to deal with the Nazis and to survive a battle he didn’t expect to be involved in. Mr. Furst adds a nice touch in the denouement when Hollywood tycoon Jack Warner is peripherally involved in rescuing Stahl from what has become very real danger. It never seems likely that Stahl will not survive his experience in Paris, yet happy endings in those days were rare and probably unlikely.
And as Stahl reaches New York and safety, there comes the blow that the world has been expecting. The last line in the book reads, “France was attacked by Germany on May 10, 1940, and surrendered on June 21.”
Everyone’s nightmare has come to pass.
• Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.