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Mission to Paris: A Novel by Alan Furst
It is the late summer of 1938, Europe is about to explode, the Hollywood film star Fredric Stahl is on his way to Paris to make a movie for Paramount France. The Nazis know he’s coming—a secret bureau within the Reich Foreign Ministry has for years been waging political warfare against France, using bribery, intimidation, and corrupt newspapers to weaken French morale and degrade France’s will to defend herself.
For their purposes, Fredric Stahl is a perfect agent of influence, and they attack him. What they don’t know is that Stahl, horrified by the Nazi war on Jews and intellectuals, has become part of an informal spy service being run out of the American embassy in Paris.
From Alan Furst, the bestselling author, often praised as the best spy novelist ever, comes a novel that’s truly hard to put down. Mission to Paris includes beautifully drawn scenes of romance and intimacy, and the novel is alive with extraordinary characters: the German Baroness von Reschke, a famous hostess deeply involved in Nazi clandestine operations; the assassins Herbert and Lothar; the Russian film actress and spy Olga Orlova; the Hungarian diplomat and spy, Count Janos Polanyi; along with the French cast of Stahl’s movie, German film producers, and the magnetic women in Stahl’s life, the socialite Kiki de Saint-Ange and the émigré Renate Steiner.
But always at the center of the novel is the city of Paris, the heart and soul of Europe—its alleys and bistros, hotels grand and anonymous, and the Parisians, living every night as though it was their last. As always, Alan Furst brings to life both a dark time in history and the passion of the human hearts that fought to survive it.
Alan Furst is widely recognized as the master of the historical spy novel. Now translated into eighteen languages, he is the author of Night Soldiers, Dark Star, The Polish Officer, The World at Night, Red Gold, Kingdom of Shadows, Blood of Victory, Dark Voyage, The Foreign Correspondent, The Spies of Warsaw, and Spies of the Balkans. Born in New York, he lived for many years in Paris, and now lives on Long Island.
If you’ve read any of Furst’s eleven other historical spy thrillers (most set in the build up to, or during, World War II), you should have a pretty good sense of what you’re getting here. A solid amateur hero who’s not too young, not too old, but just the right age and cool, calm demeanor to fit the role of reader stand-in/fantasy figure. Set in the last few months of 1938, the story follows Hollywood star Frederic Stahl, who has been ordered by studio boss Jack Warner to go to Paris to shoot a film for the studio’s French division. He heads to Europe somewhat naively anticipating a pleasant trip down memory lane, as he lived in Paris for a number of years in his 20s after having been born and raised in Vienna.
However, he soon discovers that Europe is tense and ready to explode, as the Nazis flex their muscles in the Sudetenland and Poland. The German “poltical war” machine is in full swing, cultivating rich and powerful sympathizers in France in order to rally public opinion against any kind of intervention. As a quasi-prominent American, Stahl gets swept up in these machinations before he really understands what the situation is. And from such relatively minor seeds are sown an evocative portrait of a country and continent on the brink, with the usual cast of colorful continentals (including, I believe, some of the characters from The World at Night).
The story is perhaps a little underwhelming in that the stakes never feel all that high: the main tension for most of the book is whether or not Stahl will be manipulated into an unfavorable public position or not — interesting enough in the execution, but hardly nail-biting stuff. Along the way, there are the usual odes to Paris, and romantic dalliances, sufused of course, with large lashings of prewar melancholia. The focus on Paris is thankfully mitigated by a section in Morocco in the middle, and the book’s climax in Hungary (which provides a good excuse for a cameo by Count Polanyi, who appears in Kingdom of Shadows, Blood of Victory, Dark Star, and The Foreign Correspondent.).
As with so much of Furst’s work, the atmosphere is great and the story does an excellent job of unveiling the subtle cut and thrust of prewar espionage. However, it’s not quite as gripping as many of his other books, and Stahl is perhaps too much on the nose as a hero. I wouldn’t start with this if you’ve never read Furst, but definitely worth reading if you’re already a fan.
Read Mission to Paris and it was vintage Furst with a return to the non-pro agent (an Austrian-American actor) like in Blood of Victory or Dark Voyage. Of the two more recent ones, I loved the Warsaw novel but the Balkans one was less interesting for some reason; this one was excellent and while Dark Star is still Furst supreme and one of the best ever pre-WW2 novels I’ve read, this is top tier; a lot of predictability true but still very enjoyable as character and atmosphere rather than action of which is generally little, are Furst strong points
Again full review in due time but if you read the latest 3-4 Furst novels (especially Blood of Victory, Dark Voyage, Spies of Warsaw) you will recognize the themes – relatively successful and charismatic male lead, femme fatale(s), less glamorous but more intellectual woman as main attraction, the dangerous spying game against the Nazis, the quiet assassins, the well meaning but unable to do too much officially persons of importance, the Balkan corruption and of course here Paris is as much a star as the main characters and we get too see a movie production to boot too.
Alan Furst’s most recent spy adventure is about an American Viennese emigre’ movie actor who is sent in the Fall of 1938 by Warner Brothers to make a picture in France. Upon arriving in Paris he comes up against Nazi sympathizers who are being controlled by a special group inside the Reich Foreign Ministry whose goal is to weaken French morale and degrade its will to defend itself against the Nazi regime. They use political warfare and propaganda, as opposed to actual weapons of war, to fight their traditional enemies, the French.
Being a fan of Alan Furst and his World War II spy adventure novels, I was excited and predisposed to liking this latest offering. I was not disappointed. This story is interesting as it details the methods that the Third Reich used to successfully demoralize the French people forcing them to surrender without ever firing a round. Among other methods, they used greed in the form of large payments of cash to influencial people to bend the will of the French in favor of Nazi occupation. They also used numerous instruments of propaganda such as printed material and films to influence and terrorize the French and the Jewish people of Europe. Furst has a keen insight into the horrors that the Nazis brought down on the Jewish people living in Germany at the time and his descriptions in this book will make you angry and disgusted at their actions.
The main character, actor Fredric Stahl, is courted by wealthy Parisians almost immediately upon his arrival in the city and at first repels their attempts to use him as a propaganda tool. Later he realizes he can use his status to benefit the Allies and begins to play along in order to aid in the passing of information. As is usual in Furst’s novels, our hero is involved with various love interests and one is never sure which relationships are sincere or if they are trying to use him for their own reasons. The novel also involves the Hollywood film industry and its dealings at the time which is also an interesting aspect of this story.
This story is very well written and flows naturally making the reader not want to put it down. The author creates excellent descriptions of the city settings that make the reader feel as if they are there with the characters.
I gave this novel five stars and highly recommend this book to anyone interested in classic historical spy/adventure stories and it has an interesting Hollywood twist.
-By C. Irish (Placerville, CA)
I’ve read a number of books by Alan Furst. For awhile, I tired of them beacause they all seemed the same. Then, I saw this one and decided to try one of his books again.
I really enjoyed this book. It drew me in and I got absorbed in the story and with the characters. It is set in pre-war Paris and the main character is a European actor who has been in Hollywood for several years. He interacts with the French and his love of the city comes out. He also deals with Germans who want to co-opt his celebrity for their own purposes.
Alan Furst excels at writing about everday guys who get caught up in the extraordinary events of WWII and the lead-up to it. This book is a good example of that. Throughout the book, it felt like I was there and watching the characters try to find their way through a confusing new (and not better) world. The atmosphere of the books seems like what it must have been like back during that time.
-By L. Staley (Washington, DC area)
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