My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Alan Furst's heroes are ordinary people caught up in extraordinary times and circumstances. The Polish Officer, possibly my favorite of his, comes to mind. Or it could be The Foreign Correspondent. Or any one of a dozen or so other ordinary people whom he has made the center of his engrossing tales of the Resistance movement in Europe, and especially in France, during World War II.
This time he takes us to France, to Occupied Paris in the spring of 1941. The ordinary person at the center of his story goes by the nom de guerre Mathieu, and he is the leader of a Resistance cell that has as its objective the aiding of British airmen who are shot down or forced to land in France after bombing runs over Germany. They must first find these men, then hide and care for them, getting them medical care when needed, and finally get them out of the country, often through Spain, and back to England where they can continue to aid the war effort.
Mathieu has a small but remarkable cadre to assist him in this enterprise, none more remarkable than a woman of exceptional courage called Chantal. All the members of this group - a butcher, the proprietress of an occult shop, a professor of anthropology, a Jewish nightclub owner who caters to German officers, a Macedonian smuggler, a teenage courier, ordinary people all - are motivated by their love of country and for the ideals which it embodies: fraternity, equality, liberty.
During this time, the Germans, of course, are hard at work trying to stamp out the Resistance and they do find some French who will cooperate with them and give them information. They are particularly eager to destroy Mathieu's hardy band because it has been very successful in getting the airmen out of the country. To that end, a German police inspector named Otto Broehm is reassigned from Hamburg to Paris and he becomes Mathieu's main adversary. Broehm has little love for the Nazis but he is a good policeman and he knows how to apply leverage on people to get them to give him information.
Furst does a marvelous job throughout of rendering the somber and high-risk atmosphere of the period. He does it simply by describing the scenes - the blackout curtains, the silence of streets where there are no vehicles, a woman who uses vanilla extract as perfume because nothing else is available (in Paris!), the scarcity of everything, the furtiveness that had become a way of life. He does this is in a straightforward, "just the facts" reportage manner. No fancy flourishes here; just simple language to tell the story of simple, decent people.
It is quite a feat of realistic narrative as Furst details the skills needed to carry out the work of the Resistance; skills in finding safe hiding places, forging identity documents and travel papers, procuring clothing and disguises, finding couriers for messaging and means of transportation, as well as escorts for guiding the airmen to safety. And, of course, somehow finding lots of money to pay for all those things and for bribing nosy officials.
As the months go by, Mathieu and his team were called upon not only to get downed airmen out of France but to help get sabotage agents into the country. The stakes and the tension get higher, but Furst never falters in telling the story of these ordinary people and their extraordinary courage.
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