In “Mission to Paris,’’ best-selling author Alan Furst again shows why he is a grandmaster of the historical espionage genre. Furst not only vividly re-creates the excitement and growing gloom of the City of Light in 1938-39, as war with Nazi Germany looms, but also demonstrates a profound knowledge of the political divisions and cultural sensibilities of that bygone era. What emerges is a story filled with gritty, murky atmosphere, inhabited by a hero who attempts to do what’s right at a time of deep moral uncertainty.
Needless to say, everyone involved is playing the dangerous spy game, from the Nazis who are financing a covert propaganda campaign aimed at undermining France’s willingness to fight to the Americans who are seeking to keep up with fast-moving European events and protect US interests. All of this takes place against the dramatic backdrop of Paris, with its fashionable parties, beautiful women, and glittering film industry.
Furst’s hero is Frederic Stahl, a Vienna-born Hollywood actor working on a Warner Bros. movie in France. Stahl is quickly targeted by the Nazis’ covert propaganda machine as a person of influence, someone they want to manipulate into helping them advance their interests (in this case, French pacifism). Newly arrived in Paris, Stahl receives an invitation from the Baroness von Reschke to attend a cocktail party. Stahl thus enters a shadowy game of cat-and-mouse as he’s slowly reeled into the Nazis’ well-financed network, an only partially willing participant.
Furst writes with his characteristic clarity and grace; he moves the plot along at a brisk, satisfying pace that will have readers turning pages deep into the night. Throughout, he displays a remarkable skill for satirically succinct character description. Witness how he describes the baroness greeting Furst’s hero: “Stahl spotted the baroness, cutting her way through the crowd like a determined shark.” A Nazi film producer, aptly named Wolf Lustig, who tries to persuade Stahl to make a movie in Berlin, is painted as “a licentious uncle bent on the seduction of an adorable niece — seamy didn’t describe him.” A third character is characterized as “a tyrant with a face like an angry prune.”
MISSION TO PARIS
Stahl proves no fool in this snake pit. Circled by Nazis who would have him advocate for French pacifism as German soldiers prepare to invade France, he justifiably seeks help from the US Embassy. The Americans, of course, are running their own spy operation with their own agenda. They ask Stahl to play a double game on their behalf, prodding the actor to get inside the Nazi spy ring and share information about Berlin’s objectives. The dangers are obvious, and Furst brilliantly mines the rich vein of Stahl’s “double life” for every ounce of dramatic tension.
This being Paris before the war, there are parties and gorgeous women aplenty. Stahl, a movie star with a romantic bent, must decide whom to trust, and Furst is savvy enough to leave open the question of who really is trustworthy until the very end. The Nazis ultimately find out what Stahl is up to, and, as he’s finishing up production on his film, they decide to “eliminate” him.
The fast-moving final pages are filled with classic spy against spy action, as Stahl scrambles to escape Europe ahead of Nazi assassins and German Panzers. As summer or subway reading goes, it doesn’t get more action-packed and grippingly atmospheric than this. Furst fans will not be disappointed, and uninitiated spy-novel devotees, particularly those who demand a sure sense of mid-20th-century European history, are in for a treat.