"A Hero of France" (Random House), by Alan Furst
In Alan Furst's new novel, "A Hero of France," the setting is German-occupied France in 1941. The proud tricolor nation had fallen to the Nazi invasion the previous year and a fledgling resistance had begun to foment as the action of the story begins.
Our hero Mathieu roams the streets and alleys of Paris and traverses the railways and countryside smuggling fallen British Royal Air Force pilots and crew to safety with the help of passeurs — or guides — across to the border of neutral Spain, all the while outwitting German soldiers, the Gestapo and French collaborators.
The cast of characters is varied: Joelle, the love interest from whom Mathieu keeps his secret life; Jules, the owner of the cafe where resistance meetings take place; Otto Broehm, the inspector determined to rout the resistance; and brave Chantal, an upper-class member of the resistance from a military family. However, these characters feel lacking in energy and charisma. None of the scenes pulled at my insides with excitement or fear as a strong spy novel should do. I felt as if Furst was plotting from scene to scene as if writing from a spy handbook rather than the passion of an intriguing story.
I wanted to get behind Mathieu, but I couldn't. Sadly I didn't really care: the action wasn't intense, it was plodding. Not until the very end of the story when there was a chance that the hero of France would be caught did I feel the slightest pang of emotion. Would the Nazis capture the hero? Would their network be broken? Would Joelle see her lover again?
The story moved to a rapid conclusion but I was left empty. I wanted to care — I know the story of the resistance and the RAF men whom they aided is a good one, one worth telling. I just wish it was told better. My grandfather was an RAF pilot who was shot down over the English channel after a bombing run to Germany. I wished he'd had the chance to be rescued by the resistance and returned to his home country. Sadly that was not to be.