Fiction is fun, but don't mess with the history

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Mission to Paris, by Alan Furst

After months on my local library waiting list, I was able to check out and read Mission to Paris, the twelfth and most recent entry in the series of historical-espionage-thriller novels by Alan Furst that began with Night Soldiers in 1988. As the title makes clear, the city of Paris is once again a leading character in Furst's tale of amateur espionage in the tense years leading up to World War II.

The lead character in Mission to Paris is an Austrian-American actor named Fredric Stahl. Stahl arrives in Paris in late summer of 1938 to star in a movie as part of a studio exchange deal. Those were the days when the big studios owned exclusive contracts with their stars, and were mostly able to dictate when and where those stars worked.

The movie-making business is complicated, however, by the pre-war politics of Europe. Stahl is gradually drawn into anti-Nazi activites, acting as a courier to smuggle secrets out of Berlin. Another complication is a love interest, a German emigre costume designer.
 As usual in this series, several recurring characters from earlier books return in Mission to Paris. In Berlin, Stahl meets the mysterious Russian emigre actress and spy Olga Orlova, who previously appeared in The World at Night and Red Gold. Jean Casson, French film director and protagonist of those two earlier novels, is mentioned in passing when Stahl passes the door of his Paris office. The Hungarian Count Polanyi appears as the owner of a partly-ruined castle used as a filming location. And, of course, the Brasserie Heininger - which I believe appears in every one of these novels - is the setting for a Paris dinner.

Since the twelve novels are so similar in plot and structure, my five criteria can be applied to them as a unit.

The five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?
Yes - less so with Mission to Paris than with some of the earlier books, but the descriptions of the workings of the French and German film industry of those years is interesting. Also piquing my interest are the stories of the Nazi foreign propaganda efforts in those pre-war years.   
Score =3-4
  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
Yes. Furst's novels include more historical ambience than fact, but the settings seem to be accurate in general tone. For example, Stahl happens to be in Berlin on Kristallnacht, but only hears noises and sees running shadows from his hotel window.   
Score = 3-4
  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
Yes. Again, earlier novels in the series contain more historical detail, but Furst's history seems generally to be accurate.  
Score = 3-4
  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
No historical persons appear as characters in any of these novels, though many are mentioned in background stories.  
Score = 3
  1. Would I read another novel by this author, continuing in this historical period, with these characters (or new ones)?
Definitely. As historical novels go, these are more style than substance but are fun to read, and certainly never heavy-handed with the history.  
Score = 4.