It’s Paris, 1941. Half of France is occupied by the Germans, the other half is run by Petain’s Vichy government. The Resistance is starting to take shape, and Mathieu (his nom de guerre) is the lynch-pin of a group that smuggles downed flyers back to Britain. It’s Alan Furst territory.
A Hero In France (oddly, the book was published as A Hero Of France in the US, and changed for the UK. I prefer that title because it speaks of La Patrie in a specific suggestive way) is somewhat different from Alan Furst’s novels, which specialised in slow-building, atmospheric stories. This time, almost a reflection of the fragmented nature of this resistance operation, it’s a fragmented story, one that cuts quickly between locations and operations. The atmosphere is set in broader strokes, because the pace is faster and the swirling cast of characters come and go—we learn about them quickly and briefly, and we, like Mathieu himself in many instances, don’t know who can be trusted and who cannot. The reader is aware of the possibility of betrayal, but many of the side stories remain unresolved: an old flame of Mathieu’s is a committed communist working in their group, and tries to recruit him; we wonder if he could be sold out for their purposes. The success of his operation leads the Germans to send a civilian detective to Paris to investigate; we wonder if he will be the bloodhound who finally sniffs out the conspirators. There are French toughs and the usual Furstian mix of shady people of shadowy origins coming in and out of the story. And there are untold stories hinted at or merely seen in passing. This makes it seem slighter in some ways, but this makes for a sense of time getting faster, gathering momentum like a snowball rolling downhill.
It works very well. The episodes build and the tension builds with it, and again you feel Furst deliberately trying to recreate a more individual atmosphere, trying to put you in Mathieu’s mind, make you see how well he copes with the ever-changing, always-dangerous world around him. At first I thought this was a somewhat slighter version of the shadowy genre Furst has made his own, but by the time I finished I realised it was more a different perspective on that genre, the protagonist’s own perspective. Oftentimes in Furst’s work, sides are sorting themselves out. Here, the battle lines have been drawn clearly, and men like Mathieu have a single course to pursue. Because it moves so relentlessly, this is actually a decent place for new readers to encounter Furst; for those of us who’ve been with him a long time, it’s a fascinating variation on a theme. Perhaps it ends too quickly, with too few wartime questions answered, but it’s a compelling tale of heroism. It delivers what the title promises.
A Hero In France by Alan Furst
Weidenfeld & Nicholson £18.99 ISBN 9781474602907
This review originally appeared at Michael Carlson’s Irresistible Targets