Mission To Paris, like most of Alan Furst's work, is set in the period just before the Second World War, when Europe is about to come apart at the seams. It's also set in Paris, which makes it a little different, as Furst has actually dealt with Paris during the War itself. Which leads me to think about where this stands in his oeuvre, especially since it follows Spies Of The Balkans, which was a Richard & Judy choice and in this country his most successful novel yet (you can read my review of that book here).
Like Balkans, Mission has a pared down plot—and oddly, considering it's set mostly in Paris, somewhat less atmosphere than his early books. Perhaps he, or we, know Paris too well? Its main character, unusually for Furst, is an American of sorts, Hollywood star Frederic Stahl (to me his name recalls Frederic March and John Stahl, both Americans who might well have been Europeans) born in Vienna, with a Slovene father, now loaned out by Warner Bros. to make a movie in 1938 Paris. But the Germans are waging a deep and complicated propaganda battle within France, trying to keep public opinion away from the idea of preparing for war, and Stahl soon finds himself the object of the affectionate Nazi eye, to his growing discomfort.
From there the story proceeds along familiar lines—through a series of vignettes, set in Paris, Berlin, Morocco, and finally Rumainia, and each ends with an unexpected and sudden death. This is Furst's world, where even the most commonplace of human activities can be fraught with danger, and his stock in trade is recreating that atmosphere of unsettled paranoia and fear.
But this book moves onto a slightly different track in a couple of ways. It's far less ambiguous than many of his previous novels. Furst actually sets up any number of questions for the reader—can we trust so-and-so at Warner Bros, him at the film company, her at the German hostess' party-- and in every case it turns out that we can, or that we were wrong simply to worry. This goes against the great strength of his work, which is that we can never know what positions the people on whom we are forced to depend have taken, and we can never know if that means they can or can't be trusted. So in that sense, this story is more straightforward.
It's also, as I said, less atmospheric. The most interesting parts of Paris don't rise up from the page, they seem to fade in the background of the story. Indeed, the best description is saved for the workings of the film industry (there's even a sly nod to Jean Casson, a hero of previous Furst novels). Even when he visits the wardrobe woman's modest digs, we don't get the deeper sense of what the surroundings mean to her that we've come to expect. Similarly, his Berlin, on Kristallnacht no less, remains something heard off-stage, and he really seems to move through the more exotic settings with even more dispatch.
In a more important way it is more straightforward as well—because Stahl falls in love, and in that sense his 'mission' to Paris has been to do what people have done, have gone to Paris to do, forever. I said in my review of Spies Of The Balkans that there seems to be less 'action' in each successive Furst novel, but that appears to have allowed his love stories to become more involved, more detailed, and I would guess more satisfying for a wider audience. I suspect Mission To Paris will be optioned quickly for a film which, paradoxically, might render what I have taken to be a relatively less well-drawn atmosphere, and convert it into a film whose atmosphere will steal the screen. Furst's work deserves no less.
Mission To Paris by Alan Furst
Weidenfeld & Nicholson £18.99 ISBN 9780863922
NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)