06/18/2012 07:58 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

'Mission to Paris' Proves Alan Furst Is the Master of Espionage Fiction

If you have a deadline looming or even a busy week, the absolute last thing you want to do is crack open Mission to Paris and think you're going to read just a chapter, because you're not.

You're going to read when you shouldn't be reading. You'll read at lunch. On the street. Deep into the night.

But if you then try to convey your enthusiasm for Mission to Paris to someone who has never read any of Alan Furst's 13 novels, you may have a hard time. These are spy thrillers by category, but the main characters aren't usually spies; in this book, the hero is a Hollywood movie star who, in 1938, is "loaned out" to a Parisian producer to play the lead in a French film. More and more, in total violation of convention, Furst's novels feature a romance, invariably with women who are not swimsuit models. As for suspense, even before you start a Furst novel set in Europe during the run-up to World War II, you know at least part of the ending -- the hero is not going to kill Hitler and save the world.

So why are Alan Furst's novels so addictive?

Just read the first paragraph of Mission to Paris.

In Paris, the evenings of September are sometimes warm, excessively gentle, and, in the magic particular to that city, irresistibly seductive. The autumn of 1938 began in just such weather and on the terraces of the best cafés, in the famous restaurants, at the dinner parties one wished to attend, the conversation was, of necessity, lively and smart: fashion, cinema, love affairs, politics, and, yes, the possibility of war--that too had its moment. Almost anything, really, except money. Or, rather, German money. A curious silence, for hundreds of millions of francs --- tens of millions of dollars --- had been paid to some of the most distinguished citizens of France since Hitler's ascent to power in 1933. But maybe not so curious, because those who had taken the money were aware of a certain shadow in these transactions and, in that shadow, the people who require darkness for the kind of work they do.

An immense amount of information is conveyed in those 155 words. The tension between the lively start of the fall season in Paris and the conversation no one wants to have about German money. The way that money compromises the rich Frenchmen who take it. The presence of shady characters. And, not least, the feeling you get when you have fallen under the spell of a master storyteller.

And that's just the first paragraph.

The first chapter -- click here to read it -- follows a French fool who absconds with enough of that German money to live comfortably in another country for years. Think he gets away? Or do you think we see, in brisk, no nonsense prose, the efficiency of the German operation in France -- in 1938.

All of that suggests what awaits Fredric Stahl when he arrives in Paris to make a movie. He's no matinee idol: "He couldn't punch another man, he wasn't Clark Gable, and he couldn't fight a duel, he was not Errol Flynn. But neither was he Charles Boyer -- he wasn't so sophisticated. Mostly he played a warm man in a cold world."

The Germans, knowing Stahl was born in Vienna, are interested in him. And they want so little: come to Berlin, just to judge a festival of films about mountains. $10,000 for a day's work. Lufthansa will fly him over and back.

Stahl is less than interested. But then he gets a taste of German commitment to the triumph of the Reich. (As Goebbels's people liked to say, "We don't send out press releases. We send out operatives, and then other people send out press releases.")

Stahl prudently consults an American spymaster.

"You're not a spy," the officer tells him. "That takes nerves of steel, and soon enough becomes a full-time job." A "but" follows: "If, in your time here you, ah, stumble on something, something important, it wouldn't be a bad idea if you let me know about it."

And that happens.

Reading rapidly to the end, you could say that the reason you're so involved with a Furst novel --- if you're new to his books, you may want to go right on to The Foreign Correspondent and The Spies of Warsaw and Spies of the Balkans -- is because he writes so well.

True enough. But I see another reason: At the start of a Furst novel, his main characters are not spies. They're drawn into espionage by circumstance, but also, I think, by character. That is, they see clearly that there are good guys and bad guys, and at some point, you've got to decide where you stand. That is, although these novels are about Europe in the years before World War II, they're also exquisite little morality plays about right now, right here.

But damned if they don't make you think, "I've got to get to Paris, and soon."


[Cross-posted from]