Alan Furst’s new novel takes place in the late summer of 1938, with Hollywood film star Fredric Stahl returning to Paris after 15 years to make a movie for Paramount France, about to find himself immersed in German efforts to degrade French morale.
No one captures the atmosphere of pre-war Paris better than Furst. Here he is describing Stahl walking to his hotel, sensing the city’s somber mood from the unsmiling downcast eyes of the people on the street, as they recognize that Germany may be about to march into Czechoslovakia:
Years earlier, in the last months of 1923, as Stahl was beginning a new life in Paris, war was a thing of the past -- the last one so brutal and vicious that all the world knew there could never be another. At least all the world of the Faubourg Saint-Germain. In the Left Bank cafes that autumn, the word was barely mentioned, the talk was about paintings, books, music, scandals, reputations, and who was in whose bed.
The movie Stahl is making is called Apres la Guerre -- three soldiers trying to return home from Turkey after the 1918 armistice, in a film that will be "an outcry against war." But as the novel unfolds, Stahl finds himself playing a crucial double role in the guerre that is about to begin. Here is how the U.S. consul-general explains what he is facing in France:
“The French know they were finished in 1917, and they were, until American troops showed up. So they’re scared to death they’ll push Hitler too far, scared to death of war -- they lost a million and a half men the last time, and more than twice that wounded. And they know they’ll lose again if the Wehrmacht crosses the border. …
“The Maginot Line is a political tactic of the French right. Supposedly it protects the nation, which believes in it as though it were magic, which means the French won’t fully mobilize, won’t spend enough money on armament, and won’t invade Germany. It virtually pleads for Hitler’s mercy, and it won’t work. It is meant to delay, as the French wait for the British to show up, and then they both wait for America. Meanwhile Hitler builds offensive weapons, tank and warplanes. …
“America doesn’t want to fight a war any more than the French do. We have our own Maginot Line, it’s called the Atlantic Ocean.”
It won’t spoil the book to reveal its last sentence, which is more of a chilling Afterword to a novel that gives the reader a sense of the sapped spirit that could allow all this to happen:
France was attacked by Germany on 10 May, 1940, and surrendered on 21 June.