'A Hero of France' takes readers deep into Occupied Europe
Alan Furst's latest wartime thriller follows a member of the Resistance working to smuggle Allied pilots to safety.
The good news for devotees of suspense novelist Alan Furst is that his latest book, A Hero of France, is a lot like his last nine or ten. Nah, why beat around the bush? In every significant way, it’s exactly like them, starting with another amateurish-but-determined, fortyish-but-virile male protagonist fighting his small, possibly meaningless share of the good fight against Hitler and Mussolini.
In his current incarnation, he’s a French Resistant known by the code name Mathieu, who’s involved in the tedious but risky business of setting up escape routes for downed British fliers in the gloomy early days of World War II. Naturally, the German occupiers would like to put a stop to this. But it’s hardly an earth-shaking threat to the Third Reich’s crunch-crunching jackboots.
Even under the Occupation, however, life has its sensual side. Any Furst hero’s attractiveness to women is a given, on a level that makes guessing the pope’s religious affiliation seem tricky, and lovers, ex-lovers, and potential lovers float around Mathieu like dragonflies. They’re differentiated mainly by their level of sophistication – either guilelessly beddable or worldly and amusing – and by their creator’s happiness in describing their vintage wardrobes and hairstyles.
When he isn’t playing Vogue‘s correspondent in Occupied Europe, Furst likes to moonlight for Bon Appétit. Like his previous avatars, Mathieu accepts women’s interest as his due. But good meals make him ardent – and he knows where to find them, too. The ideal last line of any Furst novel would be “After the war was over, [Fill in the Blank] prospered as a Fodor’s tour guide.”
Sorry to be sarcastic, but that’s how it goes when a onetime fan gets fed up. When I delightedly read my first Furst – 1996’s "The World at Night," as I recall – I figured I’d never be bored on an airline again if he only managed to stay productive. But he has stayed productive, and his reprises of the same scenario have gone from stimulating to predictable to damn near stupefying. By now, picking up a new Furst is like reliving "Groundhog Day" with random bits of dialogue from "Casablanca" tossed in.
As always, the storyline is a shuffle of haphazard incidents and oft-thwarted plans that gradually ratchet up the danger quotient without ever resolving themselves into a detectably purposeful narrative. There are tense journeys and seedy hotel rooms and gruffly plucky co-conspirators lifted wholesale from Hollywood’s 1940s character-actor stable. (One reason Furst’s novels don’t get turned into movies is that doing so would be redundant.) There are cartloads of evocative weather in a seemingly permanently twilit European capital, map helpfully provided. Luckily, this time it’s Paris, a city guaranteed to bring out this author’s violin side the way a well with somebody trapped in it gets Lassie’s tail thumping.
Every well-wrought but somehow otiose ingredient is so familiar that Furst’s publishers are a mite forlornly touting "A Hero of France" as his first thriller in some time that’s set during the actual, y’know, war years, after multiple books so stuck on revisiting its various 1930s preludes that some readers wondered if we’d ever see 1940 again. No matter how long he keeps at this, however, I’m fairly sure we’ll never see 1945. A Furst thriller set during the period when the good guys were actually winning would wreak havoc on his passion for defiant European underdogs whose despair is only held at bay by a new love interest or a timely steak-frites dinner.
Each time around, it gets harder to deny that much of his output is well, rubbish. I don’t mean candid rubbish, which has its uses. This is the rococo kind that lulls people into thinking they’re getting an easy-reading approximation of something vaguely akin to literature. And worse, a glimpse of How It Really Was in those stressful days of Continental swastika-and-mouse games. In fact, Furst is peddling awfully moldy fantasies of the romance of it all. Those fantasies unmistakably entrance him, which is how come you can’t call him a hack. But he owes his reputation to disguising them with artfully oblique writing and a patina of quasi-documentary verisimilitude.
If nothing else, his sheer persistence is fascinating. He’s obviously in a position where he could vary his M.O. if he cared to. (Say, how about some Cold War nostalgia for a change? Some of us miss the Cold War plenty, Mac.) Yet he’s gone on obstinately repackaging the identical dark-skies-over-Europe saga, with only minute variations, for over twenty years. That’s either a genuine fixation at work or evidence of serious anxiety about killing the golden goose. Most likely, it’s a combination of the two. But next to Furst, an old-time spy novelist like Eric Ambler – one of his acknowledged models – was a positive riot of unpredictable variety.
Like all of his work, "A Hero of France" has many nice touches. Furst is never inelegant; that’s one more of his vices. There’s a good portrait of a well-off Parisian dilettante who’s scared out of his wits by Resistance work but determined to see it through, provoking one of Mathieu’s best lines: “Remember, Chantal, he’s French – not so much afraid of dying as afraid of doing something wrong.”
Yet except for her nationality, the aforementioned Chantal – Furst’s latest droll, resourceful woman of the world – is all but undistinguishable from Olga Karlova, the Russian-born actress who had the same job in 2012’s "Mission to Paris." Chantal isn’t the only character to inspire a sense of déjà lu. From Mathieu on down, even when we haven’t literally met them before – the mysterious S. Korb makes his fourth or fifth appearance in a Furst novel here, acting pointlessly cagy, as usual – we feel like we have.
Familiar in a different way is Mathieu’s main antagonist, doughty Hamburg policeman turned Feldgendarmie operative Otto Broehm. He’s familiar because Furst seems to have borrowed Bernie Gunther from Philip Kerr’s "Berlin Noir" trilogy while Kerr wasn’t looking. Typically, Broehm is built up as a formidable antagonist – “the Inspector Maigret, the Hercule Poirot, of the Hamburg police” – and introduced in enough detail to make us think his personality and C.V. will be relevant to whatever happens next. Then his one rather unimaginative operation against Mathieu doesn’t work out so well, and he heads back to Hamburg, or maybe Kerr’s bottom drawer.
While Furst is often praised for this sort of effect – the random chess pieces who wander on and off the board without making much difference come crunch time, the superficially “realistic” denial of well-constructed payoffs – it’s long since become one more of his trademark mannerisms. At some point, you start to wonder: if these people and their activities are so inconsequential, why are we spending time with them? For that matter, why is Furst? The idea of a plotless thriller may seem true to many Europeans’ experience at the time – or clever, anyhow. But it’s also possible that he just isn’t very good at inventing satisfying plots and has figured out how to make this weakness a strength.
By now, he’s also got nothing new to tell us about the era, which wasn’t always the case. Both "Night Soldiers" and "Dark Star," the paired novels that turned historical espionage into Furst’s specialty, were impressive reconstructions of 1930s intrigue from the provocative perspective of agents recruited by Stalin’s NKVD. Laying bare the paradoxes of one totalitarian regime at odds with its right-wing secret sharers, those early books had real surprise and a sense of moral complexity; they weren’t just regurgitations of old movies and vintage magazines, retooled to look stylish and grimly authentic at once. Furst is still good at period details – that’s his best gimmick – but they might as well be refrigerator magnets for all they add up to in terms of insight. He’s living in his own private Disneyland.
That isn’t entirely his fault, however. It’s not so much that his craftsmanship is on the skids as that his books are much more recognizably trivial now that they’re bereft of the sort of cultural context that adds illusory gravitas by association. When people like me were discovering his work in the 1990s, the World War II era was enjoying its last sunset glow of renewed popular interest before vanishing from living memory entirely. From Tom Brokaw’s "The Greatest Generation" to Steven Spielberg’s "Saving Private Ryan," the whole phenomenon was a nostalgia O.D. in which romance and realism grew hopelessly intermingled and deglamorization became the new form of glamour.
Furst undoubtedly benefited from that vogue. But his small-scale, bittersweet approach also felt like a useful corrective to everybody else’s bombast and hyperbole. Similarly, his preference for French or Balkan protagonists was a welcome antidote to Spielberg et al.’s chauvinistic flag waving, although by now it seems more like misdirection — that is, a way of preventing his readers from instantly superimposing Humphrey Bogart’s face on his latest Mathieu. Now that Furst’s subject matter is out of fashion except among hopeless suckers for Gauloises and trench coats, it’s become easier to see how much fashionability was key to his appeal all along.
True, his work is also a reminder that any historical past we haven’t known firsthand is bound to turn into Disneyland sooner or later. Even so, it’s striking how Furst steers clear of dramatizing his chosen epoch’s genuine atrocities: the deportations, the camps, the helpless victimhood that was far more common than opportunities for stalwart derring-do. Though violent death is a constant menace in Furst’s world, very seldom does it become a reality, and almost never for his heroes. That’s enough all by itself to prove he’s peddling fairy tales, and I’ve gone from enjoying them enormously to feeling like I just don’t want to hum “When You Wish upon a Swastika” anymore.