Friday, 5 July 2013

Great Reads for July, 2013

Mission to Paris, by Alan Furst
I have been reading a lot of mediocre stuff lately, books that promised much but delivered little;  none have been (in my humble opinion) worth reviewing – some I skimmed through, and one or two I didn’t finish at all.  The above title is the best of a bad bunch.
Alan Furst’s specialty is the spy novel:  he has a well-deserved reputation as an intelligent and masterly writer of high-powered suspense stories and sets his novels during the Second World War.  His protagonists to a man are tough, kind-hearted and honourable, seeking always to follow the right path instead of one of expedience (See review of ‘Spies of the Balkans’ below).  They are heroes all, and thanks to Mr Furst’s considerable writing skills they are never caricatures.
In his latest opus, Mr Furst introduces us to Frederic Stahl, famed movie star, ordered by his Hollywood studio to Paris, ostensibly to make a film called ‘Aprés la Guerre’.
  It is 1938 and war is indeed on the horizon.  Gay Paree’s inhabitants are anything but, believing every rumour, wild or otherwise about Herr Hitler’s intentions, rumours fuelled by the hard facts related by those lucky enough to escape Germany while they still could.  Now, those emigrés who fetched up in Paris are beginning to think they didn’t flee far enough.
Frederic Stahl, because of his fame and matinée idol looks is much sought after by certain Parisian hostesses who hasten to assure him of their admiration of his talent and huge reputation, and would he like to join a society to foster continued peace between Germany and France?  His public support of their society would do much to promote friendship and goodwill between the two countries.  Let us make you an offer you can’t refuse.  And when Stahl does refuse, the pressure mounts:  it has been decided in Berlin that Stahl would be the ideal person to be the face of subtle political efforts to lull the French into thinking that all in the European garden is rosy, despite compelling evidence to the contrary – Stahl, unless he can use his wits as well as his looks and charm, looks set to become the Poster Boy for the German propaganda machine. 
The theme of this story is political warfare, its insidious effects twining like ivy through every facet of French life, powerful at softening the target before the heavy weaponry is employed.
The bones of Mr Furst’s story are very good, as his readers have come to expect;  sadly, his characters miss the bus:  Stahl is never more than two-dimensional and instead of propelling the reader along at a satisfyingly heart-stopping pace, the plot meanders about in fits and starts, stuttering along as though the power supply is on the blink.  This novel is not up to Mr Furst’s usual standard;  he just goes through the motions here, which is a shame.  A writer of his calibre owes it to himself – as well as his public – to produce better work than this.

Spies of the Balkans, by Alan Furst         Reviewed December, 2010

Costa Zannis is a Senior Police Officer in Salonika, Greece, in 1940.  World War 2 is underway and Hitler is massing his forces in the Balkans, ready to push south.  Costa is very good at his job;  he is a decent man, blessed with an empathy and  excellent judgement of his fellow citizens and their failings - but  Costa’s world has become a very dangerous place, and feels even more so when he is approached by a very rich lady, a German Jew, who wishes his assistance in smuggling Jews out of Berlin, where she lives with her husband, a high-ranking Wehrmacht officer.  So far, she is untouchable by the Gestapo – her husband is powerful  - but her friends are not;  she has the money to finance their flight, but not the contacts, until she hears of Costa and his very special network of friends and colleagues.  Thus begins Costa’s reluctant expansion of his talents;  from canny policeman to clandestine operative, for he cannot refuse her request for his help – no decent man could.  Mr. Furst takes the reader on a fascinating, suspenseful journey through the Balkan countries as the first Jews make their tentative way to Greece and safety;  he has a particular talent for establishing atmosphere and mood, essential elements in a spy story – BUT! – (and it’s a very big one) – in the latter half of the story Costa’s talents become known to others who require him to further the war effort  in a different, risky,  even more life-threatening way and though the novel’s tension should heighten at this point to an unbearable level,  the story suffers and the suspense starts to sag with the introduction of glamorous, beautiful Demetria , wife of a cruel shipping magnate.  It is love at first sight for hitherto down-to-earth and sensible Costa;  he falls for her like a blind roofer (which brings me to wonder cynically why no-one ever seems to fall in love at first  sight with a woman who has, say, a wall eye or is slightly mustachioed.  Demetria is also blonde – what a surprise! - and has a big bottom, but this is 1940:  big bottoms are IN).  The plot’s impetus suffers accordingly.  Having said that, ‘Spies of the Balkans’ is still an enormously entertaining read;  Mr. Furst is too clever a writer to produce a flop – it’s just not quite as good as his previous novels, in particular ‘The Spies of Warsaw’.  Try that one as well.    

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