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'Mission to Paris' blends history, suspense

The Associated Press
Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 05:15 PM

"Mission to Paris," by Alan Furst (Random House)

It is 1938 and Europe is a tinderbox, a continent on the brink. But the war before the war has already started: Spies are recruiting assets. Propaganda battles are being waged. The Nazis, eager to tap any opportunity they can to promote their cause, spot what they think is an easy mark in Fredric Stahl, a film star.

Stahl is in Paris, on loan from his Hollywood production company to Paramount France. He is also harboring a secret — he is a spy, or at least an amateur one, recruited by the American Embassy.

And so the stage is set for another quintessentially Alan Furst yarn.

Furst is widely regarded as one of the finest spy novelists of his generation. He's earned the accolade, and the comparisons to luminaries such as Graham Greene and another master spy novelist, John Le Carre, with novels steeped in atmosphere all set in roughly the same time period, the late 1930s, with Europe on the precipice of war.

It seems counterintuitive, plotting a thriller before the big guns blaze and the real action is supposed to start. Not in Furst's hands. The pre-bellum is, as the author knows and seems to teach the reader, when the most furious, furtive movements take place. It also does not hurt that Furst is a master of the mise en scene in Paris. He articulates the dark alleys, raindrops, even the smells that waft down Parisian streets in a way that brings the reader back in time.

"Mission to Paris" fits firmly into Furst's canon, with a caveat.

Stahl, the protagonist, is less compelling than the operators in Furst's earlier works. He is a kind of Cary Grant-ish presence, something better than a caricature of a movie star but still a little hollow and cliched. It does not help that the actor seems blessed with not just a natural suaveness you might expect in a screen star but also an apparently up-to-now untapped gift for spycraft. It is easier to believe, and more entertaining to dwell on, the lesser characters, including well-drawn spies from both sides of the war.

Stahl's gifts stretch the credulity just a smidge, though not enough to disrupt the entertainment and not much more than your average spy novel protagonist.

He also doesn't diminish from what is, at once, a crackerjack tale of spies and a subtle meditation on the mood of Europe in the shadow of Hitler's rise. Furst gives you both panoramic view and detail shots, a unique gift for a writer of historical fiction but one his fans are used to by now. He also unspools Stahl's titular "Mission" with the pacing and suspense you'd expect from one of the very best. To do this, and to suffuse his novel with history and ambiance that feel so authentic you are almost breathing it, is a tremendous feat.

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