Mission to Paris Flunks the Plausibility Test

Mission to Paris (2013)
Alan Furst
Random House 9780812981827
* *

The spy genre and I haven’t been on particularly good terms since a youthful foray into the novels of Ian Fleming. Although they made for good movies and TV, I don’t think much of John le Carré or Len Deighton as writers and, for my money, Tom Clancy was a hack. Glowing reviews of Alan Furst sent me to Mission to Paris, but I’m afraid I fail to see the appeal.

Mission to Paris is set in late 1938, just after the Munich Agreement and roughly 18 months before France fell to the Nazis and Adolf Hitler danced a jig in front of the Eifel Tower. Paris was already awash with German agents that were officially members of the friendship-building Comité France-Allemagne, but were in truth a third column spy ring and hit squad that disposed of troublesome enemies and double agents. For reasons never entirely explained or made plausible, an amiable second-tier Hollywood actor, Fredric Stahl, is dispatched to Paris to make a joint U.S.-French movie. For even less uncertain reasons, the German high command decides that the Austrian-born Stahl would aid their propaganda efforts. Stahl finds the Germans repulsive and just wants to make his movie and go back to Hollywood, but it soon becomes clear that one only refuses at one’s own peril. What ensues is a dangerous game in which the reluctant Stahl finds himself a pawn moved by sanguinary Nazis, German resistance fighters, and an officially neutral American diplomatic corps that unofficially think Stahl would make a good courier.

Really? Stahl is a charming man, but he’s an intellectual lightweight, a social gadfly, and a man who plays dashing figures that are quite unlike his private self. It’s hard to see why anyone would think him useful, but we soon have him on a train to Berlin to hand out awards at a Berlin Nazi propaganda film festival that just happens to coincide with Kristallnacht. Furst’s novel is filled with such unlikely contrivances and several others that border on silliness worthy of a Hollywood caper film. One of these involves a Polish count, Janos Polanyi, and a shoot-out with Nazis that plays like a European version of The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. I’m not sure I buy Stahl’s romance with dowdy German émigré Renate Steiner either.

Furst does have a good eye for detail; his descriptions of Europe on the brink of cataclysm are quite chilling. In like fashion, Paris comes off as if its residents are crowded into a tense speakeasy in which everyone lives in the moment knowing that a raid is imminent. Furst’s skill at depicting private turmoil and collective anxiety often evokes comparisons to Graham Greene, but these are–like most reviews of this novel–grandiose and overblown. Furst paints lush backgrounds but populates them with cardboard figures unworthy of inhabiting such spaces. Color me underwhelmed.
Rob Weir

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