Long Island Books: Shadow Play

By Robert Lipsyte
Alan Furst Rainier Hosch

“Mission to Paris”
Alan Furst
Random House, $27

    The specter that haunts the Europe of Alan Furst’s novels is a cataclysm beyond the imagination of his characters. But it is agonizingly real to his readers. Millions of men, women, and children will die after his story is told because of the greed, stupidity, ego, nationalism, and pure malevolence of characters we have met on his pages. Mr. Furst’s protagonists can’t stop the slaughter because they are not the standard cardboard heroes in formulaic thrillers; they are decent, urbane men over their heads in a web of evil. Mr. Furst’s superb novels of historical suspense and political adventure are in a genre of his own.
    Of course, Mr. Furst has his own conventions of mood, style, and plot. His latest, “Mission to Paris,” typically transports us into place with its opening sentence. “In Paris, the evenings of September are sometimes warm, excessively gentle, and, in the magic particular to that city, irresistibly seductive. The autumn of the year 1938 began in just such weather and on the terraces of the best cafes, in the famous restaurants, at the dinner parties one wished to attend, the conversation was, of necessity, lively and smart: fashion, cinema, love affairs, politics, and, yes, the possibility of war.”
    We will soon be dining at those cafes and restaurants and parties and we will be drawn into the curious silence around the one verboten conversation — the tens of millions of dollars, in francs, that the Nazi government’s propaganda apparatus has been spreading around the salons and boardrooms of the influential.
    Some of that “German money” is marked for the former Franz Stalka, an Austro-Slovenian who had emigrated to America and reinvented himself as Frederic Stahl, a Hollywood actor typecast as “a warm man in a cold world.”
    Stahl is a quintessential Furst leading man, lonely, flawed, competent (two Oscar nominations!), and ultimately driven by a romantic disposition and a spiny integrity.
    He is in Paris to star in a movie called, amusingly, “Apres la Guerre,” about the aftermath of the war to end all wars. The Nazi propagandists, aware of his Viennese birth, exert pressure on him to visit Berlin. They think an American star making a movie in Paris giving awards at a German film festival would help the larger scheme of encouraging French passivity to the massing Third Reich war machine. Stahl brushes them off until an official at the American Embassy suggests that such a trip might just be useful. There is information to be had. Risky, yes. And yet, if you really are an American you will want to do your part. . . .
    Somehow, Mr. Furst makes all this nuanced shadow play seem urgently compelling in the manner of Joseph Conrad, Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, and John le Carré, writers whose mixture of cynicism laced with hope he matches. If there is a downside to Mr. Furst it is that he makes it impossible after reading him to waste any more time on all those flatulent best-selling “thrillers” in which the entire world hangs in the balance while a “maverick” federal agent disarms a bomb, kickboxes an assassin, or joysticks a drone while giving lessons in tantric sex.
    Which is not to say that Stahl, like most of Mr. Furst’s protagonists, doesn’t end up with a small gun in one hand and an interesting woman in the other.
    Mr. Furst’s books are great reads on two levels; they are beachy page-turners and, if you are willing to slip into his sly, dry realpolitik, they are sophisticated meditations on government, power, powerlessness, and the danger of history ignored. One can find a subversive message here. Our leaders may well be inept, corrupt, even foolish, but we are worse if we simply give up or wait for the hero on the white horse.
    The choice of era is instructive and a fine parallel to our own. Money was being made, warnings were being ignored, incompetent leaders were being followed, and everyday people who could have made a difference were passively complicitous or in denial. And we didn’t even get German money.
    Mr. Furst has written a dozen novels set in that tense and perilous time he has recreated so convincingly. Each novel stands alone without benefit of a continuing hero or city, yet he manages to keep them fresh without a convoluted plot. It is the smells and tastes of the city that perk and sustain our interest as well as the historical and political references. There are never chunks of hasty explication or characters talking like textbooks. We come to care about those characters, too. Will Stahl be able to save his new love, the costume designer Renate, and get back to the safety of the Warner Brothers studio?
    The style is smooth, occasionally elegant, more often plainly direct. And the sense of impending doom colors everything noir. Even while dining in Maxim’s or trying new positions with his fling, Kiki, one imagines a black-and-white world.
    You can’t just read one Furst novel. Among my favorites, soon to be a BBC America mini-series, is “The Spies of Warsaw,” in which a French nobleman, Lt. Colonel Mercier, his leg stiff from a World War I wound (it hampers his tennis but not his lovemaking), becomes the military attaché, the resident spymaster, in Warsaw.
    He’s more comfortable with a gun than the actor Stahl, but the woman in question, a lawyer for the League of Nations, is the standard Furstian handful with a complicated past and a dicey future. Poland is shadowy and intriguing and the spycraft is enthralling. Now I even know how to safeguard my passwords: shave a small patch from my dog’s back, write my passwords in indelible ink, then just wait for the hair to grow back. First Mr. Furst is entertaining, then informative, finally invaluable.

    Alan Furst lives in Sag Harbor.
    Robert Lipsyte’s memoir, “An Accidental Sportswriter,” was just issued in paperback. He lives on Shelter Island.