I think if you’re going to start reading Alan Furst novels (and if you haven’t, why not?), you could do no better than start here. Though, as this is so good, maybe it would be better to start elsewhere and save this pleasure? Hard to decide how to recommend it best. It really is a summation of all his strengths, all his subtitles. The perfect place to start, the perfect place to carry on from.
A deceptively simple story – all the best are – and American movie star, Frederic Stahl agrees, at his studio’s prompting, to make a movie. In Paris. In 1939. Of course, we know now that that probably wasn’t the best idea the studio, or he, ever had, but it was back then. Though, and as you might have guessed from the spelling of his name, Stahl isn’t your typical American movie star. If there is, or was, such a thing. Anyway, Stahl is a movie star in America now, but began his life in Vienna, born into ‘intelligentsia,’ though at the age of 17 he ran away to sea. A ship took him to America, then his looks took him to Hollywood. Hollywood sent him to Paris to make a movie. He is ‘hot property’ in more ways than one, as he soon finds out. Not just to the party, wining and dining, cocktail and cafe-society, but also to the intelligence agencies. On both sides of the yet to be declared, but every one knows is coming, conflict. You can’t say ‘war’ because no one – with the possible exception of Berlin – knew if there’d be a war or not. Obviously, everyone (with the exception of Berlin) hoped it wouldn’t come to that, but the sense of it being the last dance for the Parisian society, the foreboding, the hidden – and not so hidden – threat of a mighty power finding it will not, and probably cannot, be opposed, is handled to perfection by Furst. Stahl, is knowingly or unknowingly more and more entwined by forces he knows he doesn’t and shouldn’t want to be entwined by. As a film star, his value to the Nazis is immense, they can justify their regime by using him. They invite him to Berlin, to a film competition. He knows he shouldn’t go. But he also knows that while it is just an invitation, it’s one he can’t refuse. There will be ‘consequences.’. However, by being used by the Nazis, he finds he is then making himself valuable to the American intelligence services. He can, as a still neutral American, go pretty much where he likes in Europe. As an American with a European past, he finds out different. All Stahl wants to do, is revisit the Parisian haunts of his youth, be wined, dined and partied by the hight society he once stood on the outside of, finish the film – and get his end away with the wardrobe mistress.
As an aside, if you’ve read any David Downing – if not, why not?! – you’ll recognise some of the places Stahl visits while in Berlin. At around the same time as the John Russell books too. I half expected them to bump into each other at the Adlon bar!
This is the perfect showcase for all Alan Fursts talents. The complete Furst. By turns slow, reflective, ordinary, tense, erotic and passionate. Light, dark and sometimes dangerous. And more. I’d have to put it way out in front the best Furst I’ve read so far. It has everything all his other novels have in parts, distilled in total. Beautifully well written, perfectly paced. Perfection on the page. Nothing less.