A Hero in France by Alan Furst

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Reviewed by Annabel

It’s been some years since I read an Alan Furst novel, although I own up to having a shelf-full of them. He’s prolific – A Hero in France is his fourteenth novel of historical espionage set during WWII – he describes them as “really one very long book with, to date, [fourteen] chapters”.

I first encountered Furst through his fourth novel The World at Night (1996), which was about a French film producer who risks all on a mission for the British Secret Service. That novel was different to usual spy novel fare and I was hooked. Its style was more about feel than pure plot, and this ability to evoke atmosphere, especially in occupied Paris, is certainly one of Furst’s strengths as an author.

A Hero in France is set in Occupied Paris in 1941, and concerns a cell of the French Resistance led by Mathieu which specialises in getting downed British airmen out of the country.

At eight-twenty in the evening, the man known to his Resistance cell as Mathieu waited in a doorway where he could watch the entrance of the Métro station on the Boulevard Richard-Menoir. He tried to look beyond the entrance, at the tree-lined boulevard, but there wasn’t much to be seen, only shapes in the night – the streetlamps had been painted blue and the windows of apartment buildings curtained or shuttered in the blackout ordered by the German Occupation Authority. A sad thing, he thought a dark and silent city. Silent because the Germans had forbidden the use of cars, buses and taxis. But in that silence, nightingales could be heard singing in the parks, and in that darkness the streets were lit by silvery moonlight when the clouds parted.

Mathieu’s cell has been successful many times. They have good systems in place, but it is gets trickier every time. Jules, the owner of the Café Welcome where they do their recruiting is getting jumpy, the used-clothes markets are getting picked bare, there are more Germans and document checks all the time, and a young lad called Spider is on the hustle looking for ‘Mathieu’ – he’ll need to be taught a lesson. Then, there is his lover Joëlle…

He had never told Joëlle of his secret life, trying to protect her, trying to make sure that if, God forbid, she were interrogated, she could say nothing that would suggest she was involved with what he did.

‘You are a tender soul,’ she said, adding the name – not Mathieu – that he used at the hotel.

Mathieu has a loyal band in his network. He is eternally grateful to former arms dealer, now nightclub owner, Max who finances their work. In the front line with Mathieu is Chantal, who chaperones the airmen on their journeys to safety, and amongst the others in the cell is seventeen-year-old Lisette, a student who acts as courier, carrying messages around Paris.

However, after a plane flying in to pick up some airmen crashes in the country outside Paris, the German occupying force starts to get even more restless. They decide to send in a new broom from the Wehrmacht. Major Otto Broehm’s job is to flush out the Resistance, break the escape routes and get the cell leaders – but he will go softly, softly, to try and place an infiltrator in their midst. Will Mathieu’s bluff be called?

As always, Furst is great on the detail: places, methods, recruitment, everything is plausible, and impeccably researched. As an account of how a cell operates from day to day, it was brilliant. My only quibble at the time of reading was that Mathieu himself rarely seemed in quite enough danger. The group’s heroism is never in doubt – Chantal shows particular confidence and bravery, escorting airmen whose French is rudimentary at best. However, upon reflection, I think that was Furst’s plan – to show a sustained portrait of a Resistance leader rather than concentrating on just one exciting episode in his career. As before, the feel of living under this immense pressure came over very well, as did Mathieu’s measured and effective leadership.

At around 250 pages, this novel is concise and not overblown, but manages to be thoughtful making A Hero in France a very enjoyable book to read.

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Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books, and must get round to reading the rest of her shelf-full of Alan Furst novels.

Alan Furst, A Hero in France (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2016). 978-1474602907,  256 pp., hardback.

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