What is it that makes World War II spy fiction and summer go hand in hand like gin and tonic? I ask this as someone who rereads suspense standards like Ken Follett’s “Eye of the Needle” and Graham Greene’s “The Ministry of Fear” with the same seasonal regularity as dandelions sprouting.
With its menacing Nazis, Alan Furst’s latest tale — his 12th — returns to the loamy slice of 1930s history exploited by Follett and Greene. Called “Mission to Paris,” it’s a classic cloak-and-dagger title that, with its promise of rakish fedoras, encrypted telegrams and Walther P38s, practically sings out: Summertime!
In the noble tradition of historical spy fiction that educates as it entertains, “Mission to Paris” clues readers into the propaganda warfare that the Nazis and their right-wing French sympathizers waged in France, long before conquering tanks rolled down the Champs-Elysees. Another storyline involves the informal network of intelligence agents (many of them well-placed friends of FDR) who gathered information overseas prior to the formation of the OSS in 1942. Hollywood’s role in undermining the Nazis — on and off the screen — is the third narrative strand here. Enter our hero, Fredric Stahl, a dishy leading man under contract to Warner Bros. In the summer of 1938, Stahl is loaned out to Paramount and sent to Paris to make a film. The Nazi propaganda mongers (the “Ribbentropburo”) prick up their ears at this news: Now an American citizen but born in Vienna, Stahl seems like a promising, high-profile figure who could be used to spout pro-Nazi sentiments in France. But Hitler’s hacks don’t know their man.
“He’d been scrawny as a boy but two years as an ordinary seaman, scraping rust, painting decks, had put just enough muscle on him so he could be filmed wearing a bathing suit. He couldn’t punch another man, he wasn’t Clark Gable, and he couldn’t fight a duel, he was not Errol Flynn. But neither was he Charles Boyer — he wasn’t so sophisticated. Mostly he played a warm man in a cold world.”
Which is the very same “role” he plays in this novel!
When Stahl refuses the oily overtures of some expatriate German aristocrats in Paris, the bad guys get to work strong-arming his cooperation. An interview he gives to the newspaper Le Matin is manipulated so that Stahl sounds as if he’s advocating a policy of appeasing Hitler. A sleazy German acquaintance bursts into a closed rehearsal at the movie studio in Paris and acts all chummy with Stahl, embarrassing him in front of his fellow actors and left-wing director. As the pressure to cooperate with the propaganda meisters escalates, Stahl seeks help from the American Embassy. That’s when Roosevelt’s amateur spy masters decide that Stahl may be useful to them as a courier and information gatherer. Off he flies to a film festival in Berlin, just in time to witness Kristallnacht.
“Mission to Paris” is not Furst-rate. The best parts of this story are those filled with period details about moviemaking and tense moments in which the tentacles of the Nazis and their wealthy French sympathizers tighten around Stahl’s famous chest. The settings here are evocative (a rainy autumn in Paris, a snowy Christmas in Budapest), although sometimes Furst lays the schmaltz on a tad thick. For instance, excusing Stahl’s romantic dalliance with a young woman he meets at a salon held by an expatriate German, the third-person narrator gives a cheesy Gallic shrug: “When you are in Paris, you have to make love to somebody.”
“Mission to Paris” is perfectly agreeable summer suspense reading, but what keeps it out of the five-star company of Furst stunners like “Night Soldiers,” “Dark Star” and “Spies of the Balkans” is the weak denouements of the key action-adventure moments. It’s as though Furst came up with crackerjack ideas for kidnappings and murders and then got drowsy as he was writing those scenes. I could say more, but then I’d have to swallow a cyanide pill.
Corrigan, book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air,” teaches literature at Georgetown University. On Friday, Alan Furst will be at Politics & Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.