A Hero of France

Title:                      A Hero of France

Author:                Alan Furst

Furst, Alan (2016). A Hero of France : a novel. New York : Random House

LCCN:    201600499

PS3556.U76 H47 2016


  • “From the bestselling master espionage writer, hailed by Vince Flynn as “the best in the business,” comes a riveting novel about the French Resistance in Nazi-occupied Paris. Paris, 1941. The City of Light, occupied by the Nazis, is dark and silent at night. Streetlamps are painted blue and apartment windows draped or shuttered in the blackout ordered by the Germans. But when the clouds part, the silvery moonlight defies authority, and so does a leader of the French Resistance, known as Mathieu. In Paris and in the farmhouses, barns, and churches of the French countryside, small groups of ordinary men and women are determined to take down the occupying forces of Adolf Hitler. Mathieu leads one such Resistance cell, helping downed British airmen escape back to England. This suspenseful, fast-paced thriller by the author whom Vince Flynn calls “the most talented espionage novelist of our generation” captures this dangerous time as no one ever has before. Alan Furst brings Paris and occupied France to life, along with courageous citizens who outmaneuver collaborators, informers, blackmailers, and spies, risking everything to fulfill perilous clandestine missions. Aiding Mathieu as part of his covert network are Lisette, a seventeen-year-old student and courier; Max de Lyon, an arms dealer turned nightclub owner; Chantal, a woman of class and confidence; Daniel, a Jewish teacher fueled by revenge; Joëlle, who falls in love with Mathieu; and Annemarie, a willful aristocrat with deep roots in France, and a desire to act. As the German military police heighten surveillance, Mathieu and his team face a new threat, dispatched by the Reich to destroy them all. Shot through with the author’s trademark fine writing, breathtaking suspense, and intense scenes of seduction and passion, Alan Furst’s A Hero of France is at once one of the finest novels written about the French Resistance and the most gripping novel yet by the living master of the spy thriller. Praise for Alan Furst “Furst never stops astounding me.”–Tom Hanks “Suspenseful and sophisticated. No espionage author, it seems, is better at summoning the shifting moods and emotional atmosphere of Europe before the start of World War II than Alan Furst.”–The Wall Street Journal “Though set in a specific place and time, Furst’s books are like Chopin’s nocturnes: timeless, transcendent, universal. One does not so much read them as fall under their spell.”–Los Angeles Times “[Furst] remains at the top of his game.”–The New York Times “A grandmaster of the historical espionage genre.”–The Boston Globe”– Provided by publisher.
  • “Alan Furst goes to war: Occupied Paris for the first time since Red Gold (1999 pub), Furst has set this novel during the war itself, instead of on the eve of the war. Members of the French Resistance network young and old, aristocrats and schoolteachers, defiant heroes and ordinary people all engaged in clandestine actions in the cause of freedom. From the secret hotels and Nazi-infested nightclubs of Paris to the villages of Rouen and Orleans. An action-packed story of romance, intrigue, spies, bravery, and air battles”– Provided by publisher.


Date Updated:  November 23, 2016

Reviewed in The Intelligencer[1]

A novel of the French Resistance in Nazi-occupied Paris, Furst’s usual atmospheric terrain. Small groups in the French Resistance seek to take down the occupying forces of Adolf Hitler, and help downed British airmen escape back to England, and must outmaneuver collaborators, informers, blackmailers, and spies, to fulfill these clandestine missions.

Reviewed by Sara Paretsky[2]

On June 17, 1940, Marshal Philippe Pétain issued orders to the French Army to cease fighting, signaling the capitulation of his country to the forces of the Third Reich. In short order, the German presence rapidly extended into every aspect of French life. France’s Jews began to be rounded up in the notorious rafles[3], sent first to prison camps within France and ultimately to the east. Leftists were also put under surveillance, and frequently arrested and deported.

It’s against this backdrop that Alan Furst has placed the 15th of his highly acclaimed thrillers set in Europe during the 1930s and ’40s. A Hero of France, which follows five months in the life of a particular Resistance cell, begins in March 1941, nine months into the German occupation. The hero of the novel’s title, code-named Mathieu, is escorting a downed R.A.F. airman from the countryside to Paris so that he can be smuggled back to England.

Furst, who is known for his detailed research into both cat-and-mouse sides of occupied Europe, shows not just Mathieu and his comrades but also all kinds of Germans, including the police and the Gestapo. And he shows us the French punks who are ready recruits for the occupiers, not out of any particular ideology but because of the restless savagery young men on the margins often exhibit.

Mathieu’s cell includes a teenage girl who acts as a courier on her bicycle and two aristocratic women, Chantal and Annemarie. Aiding their efforts is Max de Lyon, the owner of a nightclub that caters to German officers, a Polish Jew who hides resistants in his club and puts Mathieu in touch with merchant marine toughs who spirit people out of the country for a fee. De Lyon even blackmails a German officer into aiding the escape of an endangered member of the cell.

Mathieu’s great gift is his ability to gauge another person’s character. “It’s one of the things I do,” he tells de Lyon, “make decisions about people, can they be trusted. I am good at it. And I’d better be, because I can be wrong only once.”

As the novel progresses, most of the ordinary people Mathieu and his companions encounter are quietly anti-German, eager and willing to lend a hand. Early on, gendarmes stop the train on which Mathieu and the R.A.F. man are traveling. When they slip away to a nearby locomotive, the engineer unquestioningly helps them. Later, a pair of tramps rescue one of Mathieu’s couriers after he has been shot, carrying him to a convent where the nuns “will help anyone who asks . . . . As for the Boche, well . . . don’t worry about the Boche.” A woman who deals in religious artifacts readily agrees to serve as a Resistance post office: “She smiled and shrugged. What will be will be.”

From the novel, it seems as if a majority of the French are similarly inclined. In reality, although the numbers are hard to come by, very few were active resistants. It wasn’t until 1943, when Germany began conscripting Frenchmen for military and factory or farm work, that larger numbers engaged in active rebellion. Although the Germans routinely executed civilians to discourage resistance, we are spared such retaliation in A Hero of France, even after Mathieu and a companion kill two German soldiers.

Life under Nazi rule was severely circumscribed. Curfews in Paris were strictly enforced, and special permits were required to cross from German-controlled France into Vichy, the nominally free region of the country under Pétain’s collaborationist government. In the secret diary he kept throughout the occupation, Jean Guéhenno describes the near impossibility of getting such a travel permit. And in Dora Bruder, Patrick Modiano’s book about a Jewish teenager who disappeared during the war, the author makes us feel the claustrophobia of a city under constant ­surveillance.

Furst’s descriptions of occupied Paris are certainly sinister (“Eyes searching the darkness, he had to move slowly, pausing at doorways where he could hide if necessary, hurrying to cross a narrow street, and listening intently for the telltale sounds of the police patrols”), but his is a Paris where the people never seem to give up hope, where their love for France and for their beloved city inspires them to take defiant risks.

Furst’s novels are immensely popular, perhaps because, despite their European setting, they can be read in the tradition of the American western. Like Shane, Furst’s heroes tend to be loners—Marlboro men, we used to call them in the days of cigarette ads. They take on the burden of an entire city or country. And while they may work with a group, as Mathieu does, they carry the responsibility of that group on their own shoulders.

Like other Furst heroes, Mathieu has a woman in his life, Joëlle. Yet he doesn’t tell her about his secret activities. Mathieu, Furst explains, “didn’t want her to be in love with him because it was possible that some night he wouldn’t come home and she would never see him again and he knew what that would do to a woman who loved you.”

We all hope in our secret selves that we would be risk-takers like Mathieu, that we would stand with truth and justice in dire times, that we wouldn’t keep our heads down, looking the other way when the police wagons passed by. And if we might not be Mathieu, then we’d at least hope to be like that railway engineer, giving the resistance fighter and his airman a ride into Paris, even if we knew we could be shot for it in the morning.

Review by Jefferson Flanders[4]

Alan Furst’s A Hero of France brought to mind one of my favorite novels about the Second World War, H.E. Bates’ Fair Stood the Wind for France, first published in 1944. Bates told the story of Franklin, the pilot of a downed RAF bomber, and his quest to escape from occupied France. Furst’s latest elegantly-written historical spy thriller also focuses on Resistance efforts to shelter and exfiltrate British airmen shot down over France.

A Hero of France begins in 1941, before Hitler had turned on Stalin and when French Communists had been instructed not to oppose the Germans. It’s a time when only Gaullists are resisting the Nazi occupiers. Furst’s protagonist, Mathieu, leads a Resistance group in Paris that has established an escape line to Spain but, as he is reminded by an arrogant English spy, such cells are typically discovered within six months. Before long, a French-speaking detective from Hamburg is dispatched to France to help the German military police hunt down Mathieu and his people, and it seems it’s only a matter of time before the operation is betrayed.

Mathieu is a typical Furst hero: vital, intelligent, well-educated, attractive to women, and reluctantly drawn into the violence necessary for clandestine work. Through his eyes, we see how living under occupation alters behavior: how some people collaborate, some seek to profit, some have the courage to resist (passively and actively) and some just hope to remain neutral and sit out the war. The backdrop is Paris, the City of Light, and Furst once again paints a brilliant and admiring portrait of the city, capturing its sights and sounds.

French historians and intellectuals have debated the extent and effectiveness of La Résis (largely since the 1960s), with many suggesting that antisemitism and collaboration with the Nazis was much more widespread than had been acknowledged, and that the number of French in the Resistance had been grossly exaggerated. By its very title, A Hero of France suggests where Furst comes down on this question. He reminds us that there were indeed those who risked all and put their lives on the line to fight the Nazis, both in occupied and Vichy France. They were helped in small and large part by many of those around them. The Resistance may have not been as large in numbers as legend or myth would have it, but there were heroes, and Furst’s novel is a fictional reminder of that reality.

[1] The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (22, 2, Spring 2016, p. 141).

[2] Sara Paretsky in The New York Times Book Review Fiction. Downloaded November 8, 2016. Sara Paretsky’s most recent novel is Brush Back. A version of this review appears in print on June 5, 2016, on page BR45 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Résistance!.

[3] Rafles is French for “raids.”

[4] Jefferson Flanders, “Top Spy Thrillers and Espionage Novels of 2016,” downloaded November 22, 2016