Monday, 23 October 2017

A Hero in France - Alan Furst

I've said it before, I'll say it again: Alan Furst just gets better and better. A Hero in France came out in 2016. It's the usual territory - World War II, Europe, spies and agents - distilled down to the consistency of a fine cognac. It's the shortest of Furst's novels, just over 200 pages, with all extraneous matter chiselled away so that every word not only counts, it resonates.

It's early 1941 and Britain, France's only ally, is losing the war. 'Mathieu' - his cover name or, more appropriately, his nomme de guerre - has set up one of many independent resistance cells smuggling crashed airmen out of France and allied agents in. But the net is tightening. Berlin has tired of the French security service's attempts to crack down on resistance and is thinking of sending in the Gestapo. Before they do, however, they send Berlin's top cop, Otto Broehm, to coordinate attempts to break down the Parisian cells. He recruits an undercover agent, the Serbian criminal Kusar, to infiltrate Mathieu's group.

As always with Furst, the setting is impeccable, utterly convincing. You feel confident that he knows these streets, has visited these bars and cafes, has ridden these trains. His characters are mostly pseudonymous yet they all have back stories, the full range of emotions, hopes and fears. They interact. They have the sort of relationships that feel completely right in wartime. Indeed, I could have done without the last couple of pages in which their real names and what happened to them are revealed. It's not something I felt the need to know. And it also means we will not be meeting them again in a future book.

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