There is a certain sort of reader who craves a good thriller but is more concerned with atmosphere and character than with plot. Not for him are the fat, garish paperbacks about gun-toting heroes racing against time to avert an assassination, a nuclear detonation, or some other catastrophe, in clunky prose laden with clichés. Better if the story is set in another time and place, offering a welcome escape from wearisome, too-familiar headlines. Better still if it’s slim and gracefully written, offering a few hours of guilt-free pleasure while imparting historical insights along the way.
Therefore it is a pleasure to recommend the gripping and suspenseful A Hero of France, the 14th in a series of spy novels by Alan Furst set in the 1930s and ’40s. Like all of them, it is intensely atmospheric, transporting the reader to a Paris redolent of cigarette smoke, succulent food, and romance in the face of danger. The heavy tread of German jackboots echoes in the cobbled streets, and Parisians admonish one another, regarding their occupiers, “You must not meet their eyes.”
Most of Furst’s novels are set during the “gathering storm” of the 1930s, as nervous Europeans become gradually aware of the Nazi menace, and spy games are a prelude to the clash of arms. But Hero takes place in a world at war, with Europe aflame and France conquered, and depicts the early days of the French Resistance. Rather than the sabotage operations that would later be the stuff of legend, the focus of the Resistance in 1941 was the rescue of downed British airmen and the perilous effort to smuggle them out of occupied France so they could again take to the sky.
The Resistance would eventually be organized and supported by the exiled Free French government in London, led by General Charles de Gaulle. But in 1941 it was made up of independent and uncoordinated cells, operating in the shadows and always in danger of discovery. A Hero of France is the tale of one such cell, composed of men and women of varying ages and backgrounds united by love of country and hatred of the occupier.
The cell is led by a man known as Mathieu, who, like all of Furst’s protagonists, is brave, fortyish, and irresistible to women. A little rougher-edged than Furst’s usual aristocratic, fine-boned heroes, he has “thick shoulders and big hands, and, from an amateur boxing match when he was twenty and a student at the Sorbonne, a small, curved scar by his right eye.” Aiding him is a cast of colorful characters, each deftly drawn. Among them are Chantal and Annemarie, high-born women of grace and grit; Daniel, a young Jewish bicycle messenger bent on revenge; and the enigmatic nightclub owner Max de Lyon, in whose slightly disreputable establishment German officers cavort with dancing girls.
Mathieu and his compatriots are beset by deadly enemies. They dodge Vichy agents on crowded trains as they transport fliers to safety; a young thug lurks at their café meeting place, aware of their clandestine activities and with blackmail on his mind; and a brilliant and methodical German policeman works to infiltrate their cell. They must constantly improvise; carefully laid plans are undone by a botched airplane landing or hard-eyed border guards. But with the help of their fellow citizens, eager to do their bit, Mathieu’s team admirably accomplishes its missions.
Success brings other complications: A British intelligence officer known as Edouard arrives with a suitcase stuffed with badly needed cash, but Mathieu, prizing his cell’s independence, is wary and resentful of a man he considers a “rich English bastard from Mayfair,” an “arrogant, supercilious jackass,” and a “nasty little twit.” British spies rarely figure in Furst’s continental adventures, but when they do, they are invariably untrustworthy dilettantes, and sometimes vaguely sinister. Furst’s chief sympathies are with those who know the pain of occupation, whether in Paris — the spiritual heart of all his novels — or in the bloodlands of Eastern Europe.
That sympathy extends not merely to the heroic resisters but to everyday survivors. Furst adeptly conveys the discomforts of occupation: Hot water was a luxury and Parisians shivered as “French coal was used to make German homes cozy and snug.” The City of Lights had grown dim; the curfew cleared the once-busy nighttime streets. A pall of foreboding hung over the captive population. As Mathieu observes to a colleague, “When we lost the war, the heart went out of the people here. It was as though the city had died.”
But Furst being Furst, the atmosphere is charged as much with eros as with menace. Often the ardor for resistance takes a backseat to ardor of another sort. For Mathieu, the beautiful and willing Joëlle, “with the creamy-brown skin of southern France,” offers a welcome respite from the German peril. Later, he conducts a vital meeting with a contact in a Ritz hotel room, three scantily clad women sprawled on the bed between them. And a wealthy, married young socialite performs a languorous striptease on the terrace of a Norman farmhouse, for the benefit of Mathieu and his female companion. A hero of France, indeed. Most of the other characters also find the pleasures of the flesh indispensable to maintaining their equanimity, whether in a stone barn serving as a hideout or simply in the imagination. No doubt the plentiful sex scenes do Furst’s book sales no harm; they certainly convey the characters’ lust for life amid the darkness.
Cuisine, too, is a comfort. Even in occupied Paris, the right connections and sufficient cash could secure a restaurant table in a secluded upstairs room, with “real food, black-market food, at black-market prices.” In one such room, Mathieu spots a former lover and potential recruit while savoring his dinner: “The steak seared and running blood, the frites in a sizzling mound by its side. Dark gold. Crisp. And . . . plenty of rich brown sauce with peppercorns.” In a prostrate France, even a good meal is a minor victory.
A Hero of France — filled with breathless chases and narrow escapes — is Furst’s best and most exciting novel since 1995’s The Polish Officer. It arrives as Paris again finds itself under siege, though its current tormentors lack the deadly suavity of the German occupiers — they would rather blow up nightclubs than cavort in them. But Furst’s latest reminds us that Paris has suffered worse horrors, and survived.
– Mr. Bishop is the corporate-communications manager of Strategic Investment Group. He has held several posts on Capitol Hill and in the White House and is the former executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.