A HERO OF FRANCE
By Alan Furst
Random House, $27, 234 pages
Often, while reading a book, we look to see how many pages are left. We do this for two reasons. The first is because we don’t like the book and wonder if we can stay the course. The second reason is because the book is so good we don’t want it to end, and we’re hoping the book has somehow, miraculously, increased in length. “A Hero of France” is one of those good books we don’t want to end.
For readers already familiar with Alan Furst’s novels, this evaluation will come as no surprise. But if this is your first Furst, lucky you, as this novel is his 14th — and there’s not a slow dog in the pack. His debut novel, “Your Day in the Barrel,” came out in 1976, and his most recent output includes the best-selling titles “Midnight in Europe” (2014) and “Mission to Paris” (2012).
Almost all of Mr. Furst’s espionage novels feature ordinary men called upon to perform extraordinary deeds, but of course when called upon to save, say, a downed British flier from the Nazis, the men turn out to be anything but ordinary. And each man always has a beautiful (often Parisian) woman, either waiting for him or working alongside.
The time is usually just before or during World War II, and the setting is Europe or Eastern Europe, with an obligatory sojourn in Paris (where the author, an American, lived for almost a decade). The City of Light is an emotional touchstone for Mr. Furst. As he told an interviewer, “‘Paris is the talisman, the height of European culture,’ a kind of paradise of the mind.” His novels, he has said, are “a series with different characters” in which Paris is the fulcrum. And because Alan Furst is such a meticulous researcher, his descriptions of the various places where the action occurs are as enjoyable as the plot and the characterization.
“A Hero of France” begins one evening in March, 1941. On orders of the occupying Germans, the city is dark and also quiet because the Nazis have forbidden the French from using motor vehicles of any kind. But “the man known to his Resistance cell as Mathieu,” huddled in a doorway so he can watch a Metro stop, observes, “in that silence, nightingales could be heard singing in the parks, and in that darkness the streets were lit by silvery moonlight when the clouds parted.” So, on the very first page, a faint note of hope.
That note soon fades, however, not to be heard for a very long time, as Mathieu receives a variety of increasingly dangerous assignments from his superiors in the Resistance. He meets his first downed pilot in a barbershop where he’s been hiding for days, and takes him, by subway, and then via a train’s freight car, where they are almost captured. There are more pilots to be rescued as the tale progresses. Not all the attempts succeed.
Mathieu makes many contacts at a Parisian nightclub called Le Synge, which is allowed to operate because the German officers cavort with the dancing girls, who, to please the German officers, no longer wear even G-strings.
Before the Occupation, Mathieu had a normal life and a normal job. He still has the job, but he rarely performs it. His employees know that he is in the Resistance, and cover for him. He now lives on Rue Dauphine near the Pont Neuf in an apartment described as “a familiar place, the rooms like those to be found in cheap but decent hotels anywhere in France: wallpaper with pink roses and green leaves on a tan background, thin brown carpet, a narrow bed with iron bars at head and foot, a green chenille bedspread, a sagging mattress.”
Life may be different but it is not (yet) terrible. The hotel dog has adopted Mathieu and stays by his side whenever he is home, and on the fourth floor lives Joelle, with whom he has begun a passionate affair. For her safety (and his own as well) he hasn’t told her he is in the Resistance, but as novel speeds toward its end, he not only has to tell her but to recruit and use her as well. It all evolves with great plausibility.
Just as the character known as Mathieu delivers on his promises to his superiors in the Resistance, Alan Furst once again delivers on his longstanding promise to give his readers an exceptional reading experience. And he does it with his singular style and elan.
Here’s how a friend and fellow fan describes that experience: “As you crack the cover the room fills with mist and the smell of cheap red wine seems to be in the air. A thin cloud of smoke from Gitanes hovers. If there is a woman about she too is aromatic redolent of an unshowered life — sweat and cheap perfume. Outside it is dark. There is a chill. One can hear the sound of many men in boots marching together in the street outside the window.
“Alan Furst books are dangerous. One must pick them up with caution for when you sit down to read one you cannot put it down. I start one of his works only on a Friday or Saturday evening so that if I read through the night I can sleep in the next day.” Now that’s a compliment.
• John Greenya is a Washington writer.