Alan Furst has carved out a substantial niche for himself with his meticulously researched thrillers set in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s. His latest, A Hero in France, opens in March 1941, ten months after the French premier Marshal Petain’s infamous capitulation and the arrival of the German occupying force.
The hero of the title, code-named Mathieu, lives a double-life, his identity never revealed, even to his lover, Joëlle. He heads a cell of the French Resistance tasked with getting downed RAF airmen out of France and back to England, not just for the propaganda value but also because of the appallingly high attrition rate of pilots. The book spans five critical months in the work of the cell and its web of supporters, supporting network, operating under an increasingly suffocating blanket of fear, suspicion and distrust as the German grip on Paris, and France, tightens. There’s Lisette, a 17-year-old courier delivering critical information on her bicycle; the aristocratic Annemarie with roots deep in France’s aristocratic past and club-owner Max de Lyon, a Polish Jew who funds and supports Mathieu, whilst nightly entertaining senior German officers.
One of the most engaging aspect of the book was the quiet, frequently unsung, heroism of the ordinary French just trying to survive under the occupying forces yet willing to provide a moment of support for their beleaguered country: the taciturn railway engineer who instinctively help Mathieu and one of the escaping airman as they are being pursued by the Germans, and the two tramps who rescue one of the group’s wounded couriers delivering him to the safety of a local convent.
Lining up against them is not just the German Army, the Gestapo and the inherently police chief brought in by the Reich specifically to exterminate the network, but an array of collaborators, spies, vengeful misfits and opportunistic thugs.
Furst effectively creates a Paris shrouded in an air of increasing threat with its brutally enforced
curfews and undercurrent of menace. There is almost no overt violence. Like the best thrillers the tension is as much in the cat and mouse game of survival; what might happen, as in what actually does.
A Hero in France by Alan Furst is published by Hachette. Other books by Furst include Midnight in Europe, Spies of the Balkans and The Spies of Warsaw which was made into a TV mini-series starring former Dr Who, David Tennant.