Friday, 5 October 2012

“Mission to Paris”, Alan Furst

I’ve long maintained that Alan First needs to be read in a cold climate. There’s something about him that calls for a stinging rain against the window and an audible wind. Presumably for commercial reasons, his publishers have lately taken to releasing his work in time for summer reading, and that doesn’t work for me. I tried reading “Blood of Victory” in an Umbrian villa by the pool, and it didn’t hand together at all, so since then, no matter when they’re released I wait for nights to grow shorter and the right time to put some Furst into my life.

My reading of “Mission to Paris “ might violate this, because there’s no stinging rain, and the temperature’s anything but cold, but somehow early autumn in the art deco surroundings of Shanghai’s Peace Hotel, with jazz tinkling up through the atrium, wine sipped from elegant glassware, and the knowledge that Noel Coward wrote Private Lives while staying a few doors down the hallway somehow all makes it okay.

Eleven years ago “Night Soldiers” came with me to Moscow. I still miss the sprawling narratives and enormous purview of Furst’s earlier works, but after what’s felt like a little bit of a stutter with “The Foreign Correspondent” and “Spies of the Balkans” Furst seems to be hitting the mark in a way that resonates that little bit more.

Paris has always been a constant in Furst’s work, and here it’s at the heart of the novel, and deep down this works. Ultimately for all it can feel a little repetitive, Paris is a happier hunting ground for Furst.

“Mission to Paris” is all about pre-war cinema – people always liken Furst to watching Casablanca for the first time round, so somehow it makes sense that he’s written something so overtly about cinema – okay, we’ve been here before with the Casson books (who gets a nod here, with the marvellous description of him doing “tasty little films” about gangsters with hearts of gold) but here the film industry is front and centre.

We’ve got a memorable Kristallnacht scene, where Stahl is at the Adlon while Berlin burns. This is redolent of the Iron Exchange chapter in “Dark Star”, ramming home the lingering menace of Nazi Germany as it descended into humanity’s abyss.

Orlova (a marvellous character who, one hopes, will be made more of) reminds of David Downing’s Effi (surname?) – which leads on to the other tribute that can’t surely be accidental – can a character called Stahl who once played “Dr Lawton” really be anything other than a veiled hat tip to John Lawton and his very different historical novels which successfully transcend the pigeon hole of “period crime fiction” or “historical thriller”.

Downside? The denouement seems somehow rushed. Escape is never quite so simple, or is it? There feels as though there should be more of a story here, more opportunity to explore and draw out the story, which otherwise has a languid pace to it? Or is this a reflection of a hunger on the part of the reader to discover the fates of characters they have to care deeply about? Either way the ending doesn’t quite feel as sorted as the rest of the novel –the ambiguity you find in “Dark Voyage” or “The Polish Officer” adds a lot – equally the unravelling at the end of “Dark Star” is ultimately highly satisfying – tying off knots makes for a more satisfying short term reading experience, but lessens the chance of the book remaining with you over a more prolonged period of time.

Ultimately though, it’s an Alan Furst book. Whatever warts it might have it’s an evocation of the world in a dark time that’s completely absorbing and makes your life better for having read it. It’s autumn, the light is growing shorter, there are foghorns on the Huangpu: it’s the ideal time to read it.

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