The best-seller lists are fractious and thick with genre fiction and thrillers. When not taken up entirely with the works of James Patterson, they subdivide along lines of disappearing women, disappearing children, disappearing spouses and straight-out cop procedurals, which have reached for their setting and authors out to the Nordic works of Jo Nesbø.
Then there are what are still but loosely labeled spy novels — loosely because that genre, long dominated by the literary-minded John le Carré and the Cold War, has now had to adopt to changing wars, changing times and changing technology. And there are also spy novels that are strongly wrapped in history, some going back as far as ancient Rome.
Two more recent examples of the historical spy subcategory are “The Wolf of Sarajevo” by former diplomat Matthew Palmer and “A Hero of France” by Alan Furst.
“The Wolf of Sarajevo” can be termed a historical spy novel because history seeps through the book like floating ghosts: the still-tortured ghosts of the Balkan wars —and major atrocities and ethnic cleansing — that occurred in the aftermath of the breakup of Tito’s Yugoslavia.
The protagonist is a mid-level diplomat who’s dragged into trying to stop another outbreak of war. He’s haunted by the mass murders he’s witnessed and couldn’t prevent. He and his ally, a CIA operative and his former lover, try hard to prevent an assassination that could make the region erupt once again into tribal wars among Serbs, Croats and Muslims.
As a travelogue — geographically, politically and culturally — the book works very well, with the hero and his not-too-trustworthy ally trying to sort out alliances old and new, life among armed thugs and the ghosts that haunt everyone.
As a smooth narrative, “Wolf” doesn’t quite work as well. Palmer’s expertise makes sense out of backdoor dealings and newspaper headlines, but he also has a tendency to have his characters indulge in lectures about recent history. Heroes should never turn into pedagogues no matter how extensive their knowledge, experiential or otherwise.
Palmer flavors his hero with an intense passion for the region and empathy for what’s been lost. That makes the book a novel that has something special to offer.
Furst has no expertise in anything, but he has a gift for storytelling and a larger gift for recreating the atmospherics of the past, most of it centering around the years leading up to World War II in Europe. “A Hero of France” is his 14th book. His tales invariably revolve around men and women who try to grapple with the impending storm coming to engulf almost all of Europe.
In all of the books, he manages to capture the flavor of the times. In this book — which takes place during the German occupation of France and particularly Paris — Paris is as much a character as the heroes, all of them wrapped up in, leading or fighting in the French underground. Its hero is a Resistance fighter named merely Mathieu, and he and his comrades try to thwart the Germans at every turn, rescuing downed British fighter pilots, setting up escape routes. It’s dangerous and sometimes sexy work.
It works almost as a romantic novel — not that it isn’t realistic, or grim in describing the City of Light in a dark time: the shadows of awnings and coffeehouses, the early darkness, German officers at play in a brothel run by a Resistance fighter, the dangers in the countryside, shopping for goods monopolized by the occupiers.
This is a book that gets into your soul, your imagination, your nostrils, your fingertips. It’s nostalgic, but an odd sort of nostalgia. Its Mathieu is brave, he’s smart, but he also has a feel for the ambience of the life he’s living in Paris, doing what he does. The book is acutely observed; the people — including a somewhat ineffectual aristocrat taking trembling first steps into the Resistance — are rendered in great detail. The French people have lost a war, at least in the beginning, and it’s their reaction which makes up the environment, the people walking the street, savoring coffee, brandy or tea when they can, reading newspapers, making their way on trains and buses, walking the wet streets.
We live in a different time, of course, and a different Paris exists today, living under a different stress of terrorism. The qualities of the people in “A Hero of France” are clear enough; they have doubts and fears, but they also live in a moment they know is important, and that gives a frisson to everything they do, the waking up in the dark, scanning an array of people on a train, making love, eating, nighttime, daytime.
If you’ve never had the pleasure of reading Furst’s books, “A Hero of France” is a good place to start.