Mission to Paris
Reviewed by Kimberley Jones, Fri., June 15, 2012
Mission to Parisby Alan Furst
Random House, 272 pp., $27
Bestselling author Alan Furst has made a name as the author of spy novels set in the ramp-up to World War II, but the hero of his latest isn't a spy – he's a Hollywood-suave. Born Franz Stalka, Austrian émigré Fredric Stahl is a film actor who's made a career out of playing morally upright men ("the knight, not the gigolo") – think the unfailing decency of Fredric March coupled with the continental allure of Paul Henreid. Stahl's roles are not so far removed from the man himself, though he shares the isolationist inclinations of his adopted country. His studio sends him to shoot a picture in Paris – a dicey time to be leaving American soil – and Stahl finds maintaining a neutral stance increasingly difficult when Nazi conspirators and American diplomats alike try to enlist him to their causes.
Paris circa 1938 was a hornets' nest humming toward an irreversible, ruinous rattle, and Furst spangles his book with a sprawling cast of characters standing in for every side of the soon-to-be–global conflict. They're straight out of Central Casting – boorish French collaborators, oily Nazi propaganda officers, a colorful international film crew, and an orbit of potential lovers for Stahl, including a Soviet double agent and a capricious French socialite with questionable allegiances – and Furst draws these character exceptionally well via dialogue. Occasionally the action tips toward the cartoonish – and, goodness, but aren't the sex scenes one long eye roll – but Mission to Paris shares the same DNA as those golden-age Hollywood productions of which Furst writes so knowingly: Their course may be predetermined, their characters overfamiliar, but that doesn't make either any less satisfying an entertainment.