Alan Furst moves politics, his craft forward in return to Night Soldiers series in ‘A Hero in France’
Alan Furst, widely recognized in the publishing community as the master of the historical spy novel, has been writing his Night Soldiers series for almost 30 years.
He refers to the series as one long story with each book being its own chapter in history, and he said that with the latest release, “A Hero of France” (Random House, $27), he knew it was time to take the series in a new direction.
“This was getting to be my niche, but when I looked back at the covers and the years — I had written in the (1930s) again and again — I thought I had to do something different,” he said.
So he moved “A Hero of France” forward into the year 1941, one year into the German occupation of France. The book is a history of the first of the three phases of the French Resistance, with the academic upper class resisting.
Furst compared the change to a chemistry experiment.
“You drop a chemical into the beaker, and the beaker changed color,” he said. “It’s a very different book, very narrative but with very little talking by the narrator; the narrative comes from the cast of characters. It’s an ensemble novel of heroes and heroines.”
The main hero of the novel is Mathieu, a French newspaperman turned leader of his own resistance cell. He helps downed British airmen escape from occupied France and return to England, assisted by other French citizens such as Max De Lyon, an arms dealer turned nightclub owner; Daniel, a Jewish teacher out for revenge; Chantal, an upper-class woman; Lisette, a 17-year-old student; and Anne Marie, an aristocrat who wants to make a difference.
As demonstrated by the number of female characters in the book, Furst especially wanted to highlight the women of the period and their influence in the resistance.
“In 1940, women did not have a vote and couldn’t get a driver’s license without their husband’s approval,” he said. “But now here comes the war, and women took a huge role in this.”
Furst illuminates the day-to-day life of French citizens during the occupation, including the curfew, blackouts and the constant presence of the Gestapo. He zeroes in on particular men and women who emulate the French spirit.
“There’s a French saying, ‘One must defend oneself first above all,’” Furst said. “After the war, when the French people were asked why they got involved in the resistance lines, they said, ‘Because I was asked.’”
Furst said that’s one thing he admires about the French people aside from their sophistication. He has lived in France for a total of 11 years, including one seven-year period, and feels he has come to know them.
“By osmosis, I learned about Europe very well,” he said.
While this explains the setting of his books, one of the most frequently asked questions Furst said he receives is about why he writes in that time period. He said it’s not an easy question to answer.
“It’s an incredibly intense period of time,” he said. “These years (from 1933-1943) are notable for passion of all kinds. From people, there’s plenty of that in my books, and also terrible political passion.”
This political passion is what he said inspires his stories to go from original ideas to the research phase and eventually onto the page.
“I used to pick a country I wanted to write about,” Furst said. “Then, I would read the political history of the period, and there I would find my political plot. Once I had that, I would try to imagine the darker side to that, and I’d have the novel that I wanted to write.”
The political plot in “A Hero of France” had certain qualities Furst wanted to highlight.
“When you read about the period, it’s all about the Nazis fighting, and the poor people in between get squished,” he said. “What were you supposed to do? Who were you supposed to march for? It just was a very, very dynamic period.”
Mathieu and the members of his resistance cell each have crucial roles to play in delivering messages, supplies and airmen all over the European continent. In historical accounts, a cell like Mathieu’s typically lasted six months.
“The bigger they got, the more dangerous they got,” Furst explained. “Three friends who trust each other can do anything. Three hundred people, you’re bound to have people working for Germans or (the French State).”
In the book, with the six-month deadline nearing and Mathieu’s force growing, invisibility becomes harder to achieve and the risk of spies is a constant worry. When a German inspector starts getting increasingly close to catching members of the resistance in action, the tension is palpable.
“When you think about the German counterintelligence … they weren’t stupid, they’d catch you,” Furst said. “Then they’d get your family and your friends. It didn’t always turn out well for people.”
Furst said that while this is an area in which he tries to remain true to history, he does hold back on the more gruesome details.
“I’m careful in my books not to be offensive,” he said. “I know some terrible details, but people don’t need to hear about that. They’ll never forgive you because you’ll put something in their heads they’ll never forget.”
Even without the gruesome truth, the story is full of enchanting descriptions, informative details, cautionary love, dangerous missions, narrow escapes and a satisfying ending with a last line Furst is particularly proud of — and that may make his fans emotional.
“A Hero of France” contains sexual content, including mildly graphic sex scenes, as well as mild language and mild combat violence.
Tara Creel’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org, and she blogs at taracreelbooks.wordpress.com.