Thursday, July 5, 2012

Alan Furst Takes A Mission To Paris

The slow creep that led up to the outbreak of World War II is often looked back on as unfathomable. Germany reoccupied the Rhineland, annexed Austria, pressed claims in Czechoslovakia, and positioned itself for an invasion of Poland. All the while, the world watched and mostly acquiesced.

After World War I, few countries had an appetite to return to the trenches. Economies were still struggling from their misguided decisions to abandon the gold standard leading up to World War I and could not sustain the temporary post-war economic boost. Add in the 1929 stock market crash and its impact on the global economy that relied on accessible loans from America, and everything slowed to a crawl.

By the late summer of 1938, the stage was already set for another world war. But despite increasing diplomatic tensions, the film industry was entering a golden era with dozens of up-and-coming stars. One of them, Fredric Stahl, is on his way to Paris for a major motion picture, a war film with an anti-war bent and backed by Harry Warner, who spent large sums of money to get his family and employees out of Germany.

Stahl is reluctantly drawn into the theater of European espionage and propaganda.

With a high profile American in Paris, one who was originally born in Austria, the Nazi party is all too anxious to bring Stahl into the fold as an influential player in French politics and foreign affairs. By securing his sympathy for the plight of Germany's peaceful ascension and his desire for world peace, they believe him to be the perfect pawn to further their goals.

Except, there is one problem. Stahl is not so sympathetic to Germany or the Nazi party. And as a secret bureau within the Reich Foreign Ministry begins to introduce him to the the players of Parisian high society, Stahl turns to the only people he hopes he can trust — the American embassy in Paris.

In 1938, more than 90 percent of Americans still favored isolationism but President Franklin D. Roosevelt saw growing tensions as a cause for intervention. In his efforts to prod the United States toward war, he pressed for policies and supported informal clandestine operations to prove a necessity to act while promising voters that America would not be drawn into any foreign war.

One of those spies would become Stahl, not because he sought out the non-existent post but because he needed protection from increasing pressure by German operatives and their French allies. Although horrified by the Nazi war on Jews and intellectuals, he saw himself as merely an actor and not suited for foreign affairs.

Given that the Nazi propaganda machine was already well entrenched in France, using bribery, intimidation, and corrupt journalists to weaken French morale, Stahl had little choice. Although the exchange was nuanced, Stahl was unofficially recruited to leverage Nazi interest in him.

And that is where the book begins to slowly take off, unfolding at a pace as nuanced as Rosemary's Baby. Stahl would be thrust deeper into the dangers he wanted to avoid as German socialite spies, Russian film actress spies, and other foreign diplomat spies all make sport of his attention.

Although fictional, Mission To Paris brings clarity to impending global conflict.

Alan Furst demonstrates his gift as a writer once again, creating an atmosphere of calm dread. As an espionage book, it retains more of a mystery feel as the protagonist is pushed deeper and deeper into a maze without any guarantee of an exit. As his role solidifies and the Gestapo become more anxious to to force their hands and close the trap, there are some thrilleresque moments.

Furst is unquestionably a master of the historical spy novel. Despite missed reader reviews and not his finest work, Mission To Paris will not disappoint anyone who wants to glean the real thing as opposed to a James Bond thriller. The plot in this case is based very much on fact. And even if the characters are fiction, Furst breathes enough life into each of them to convince you they're real. So do the environments where much of the story plays out — Paris, Berlin, Budapest,

Mission To Paris By Alan Furst Sneaks 5.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Interestingly enough, Furst didn't necessarily have an innate desire to become an author or attraction to detective stories while growing up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He describes his childhood as normal. If anything changed him, he said, it was his mother finding an old story that he had scrawled out when he was 12. She typed it up and Furst saw his work in print for the very first time.

Mission to Paris: A Novel by Alan Furst can be found on Amazon. The book can also be picked up at Barnes & Noble, ordered from Albris in a hardcover, or downloaded for iBooks. The audiobook on iTunes features narrator Daniel Gerroll.

The choice is both perfect and bothersome. Perfect because he is fitting enough for Stahl, bothersome in that the audiobook further diminishes the action contained in the book, retelling intense scenes as just another brisk jaunt in the park (not unlike an actor might deliver lines in vintage films).

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