When Fredric Stahl, a popular Hollywood actor born in Austria, comes to Paris to work on a film, he is immediately swept into the best social circles. And it’s no wonder; he’s charismatic and attractive, and he lived in Paris for a while in the 20s, so he knows a little about the Parisian social scene. But the Paris of Alan Furst’s new novel, Mission to Paris, is not the Paris Stahl remembers. There’s something sinister lurking underneath the glittering social scene:
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.
It doesn’t take Stahl long to become perplexed and disturbed by the political situation in France and uneasy about seeing his former boss from his days working at the Austro-Hungarian Legation in Barcelona. Gradually, he begins to understand why his friends were cautious in their congratulations when he told them about the job in Paris. An offer to judge a film festival in Germany and an interview that goes awry adds to his worries. Soon, he’s immersed in a world of secrets and espionage. Will he get out alive?
Mission to Paris is the second of Alan Furst’s novels that I’ve read. The first, The World at Night, is set in France during the German occupation and also features a man from the film world who is drawn into the world of spying. I enjoyed The World at Night, but I liked this book even more. The way the Germans quietly insinuated themselves into France, long before they officially invaded, shows what money and media can do to alter history. Even the word peace has sinister implications in this world, as Stahl finds when in a interview his expressed desire for peace is taken to mean he supports rapprochement with Germany.
Stahl as a character is well drawn and easy to get behind, despite his womanizing ways. He’s honorable, charismatic, only a little naïve about politics, and good at his job. He can’t throw a punch like Charles Gable or fight a duel like Errol Flynn, and he’s not “so sophisticated” as Charles Boyer. “Mostly he played a warm man in a cold world.” (I pictured a Continental Ronald Colman.) His eventual love interest is a smart and passionate woman who knows what’s what. The romance moves a little quickly, even under these circumstances where time must move quickly, but I found this affair easier to believe in than the one in The World at Night.
In both books, I was struck by Furst’s ability to create atmosphere. This book in particular felt like a 1930s film. The characters, the settings, the clothes all seemed like things I’d seen before, not because Furst relies entirely on types and clichés but because he builds on those familiar cultural references to create something new and entertaining. All of the actors were made up, but I could see them, and I could easily picture the scenes from Après la Guerre, the film Stahl is working on.
Goodreads lists this book as #12 in Furst’s Night Soldiers series, but from what I can tell, this isn’t a chronological series that has to be read in order. The books have some overlapping characters, and I believe they all involve World War II Europe. I’ve read the 4th and 12th books with no ill effects, so don’t let a fear of missing something from an older book hold you back if this one sounds good. It doesn’t rely on the earlier books at all. I think anyone interested in 1930s film, spy fiction, or fiction about World War II would find something to enjoy in Mission to Paris.