A Hero in France

By Alan Furst

Weidenfeld and Nicolson

The year is 1941. France is defeated, occupied and still reeling from the Nazi onslaught. Such is the setting of Alan Furst’s latest espionage thriller, his 15th, and one which takes his reader into the heart of the fledgling but burgeoning Resistance. Our hero goes by the code name “Mathieu” and over the course of what is a surprisingly short novel, we trace his team’s efforts to smuggle downed British air crew to the border with Spain.

Of course, there have been many books, films and television series set in Occupied France. But while the territory is familiar, Furst’s ability to conjure up a sense of rich authenticity on every page has few – if any  – peers. Rather than focusing on an abundance of scenes of action and violence, Furst instead prefers to concentrate on the smaller picture: the relationships, rivalries and pressures of an active resistance cell whose eclectic members range from a schoolgirl through to members of the aristocracy.

Furst, wisely, also focuses on German efforts to track down those who opposed them. The tension ratchets up as they play their cat and mouse game beneath the city-wide blackout curtains and vehicle-free silence of war-time Paris.

Although this is perhaps not his finest work, Furst has nonetheless produced yet another page turner. A hero in France is replete with characters to root for. Mathieu, for example, more than lives up to his billing in the book’s title. While his girlfriend knows nothing of his underground activities, his devotion to the Tricolore is matched only by his devotion to the members of his cell. His is a world of back streets and alleys, of night-time railways and darkened countryside, operating under the constant threat of capture from German soldiers and the Gestapo, or of betrayal by French collaborators.

To read Alan Furst is to immerse yourself in a time and place far removed from the present day. Ideal weekend reading or one for the commute, most readers will surely race through it and be left hungry for more. Fortunately, the Furst literary production line is rarely still for long.