Alan Furst’s latest novel opens in Paris in March 1941, approximately nine months after Hitler’s armies entered the city. The action that follows concludes the following year. During that time, a Parisian businessman code-named Mathieu coordinates a cell in what came to be called the French Resistance. He and his colleagues, including two young aristocratic women, help dozens of British and Allied airmen shot down over France or Belgium to make their way south through Vichy France and over the Pyrenees to refuge in Spain. From there, they are able to return to England and to active participation in the war.
Vive la Resistance!
In this early phase of the Resistance, French patriots operated virtually alone, without the support of the Communists who actively joined the movement only after Hitler broke his pact with Stalin in June 1942 and invaded the Soviet Union. That was at approximately the same time that the Resistance began a campaign of sabotage and assassination against the German occupation — and the Nazi hierarchy began cracking down on them. During 1941-42, French police were assigned to investigate the airmen’s escape lines, without notable success. Beginning in 1942, the Germans themselves, especially the feared Gestapo, took up the task — with lethal results.
A Hero of France (Night Soldiers #14) by Alan Furst ★★★★☆
Most accounts of the French Resistance focus on the later years of the war, after French Jews had been shipped off to death camps. Then, roving bands of French partisans were blowing up train tracks and killing Nazi officials with regularity. The most familiar accounts of the movement’s efforts zero in on its role in assisting the Allies shortly before and after the Normandy Invasion in 1944. Furst chose instead to set his story before any of this took place, in the less fraught, early years of the war. Clearly, before the conflict became distressingly complex and messy, it was much easier then to say, Vive la Resistance!
A flawed story
A Hero of France is not one of Furst’s strongest efforts. His strengths are evident, of course: believable, well-developed characters; an engaging love story threaded throughout the novel; and a compelling historical setting. The novel is flawed, however. Furst gives the impression that virtually all French citizens supported the Resistance even if they weren’t willing to risk their lives by participating directly. Historical accounts show that the French collaborated with the Nazis in far greater numbers than Furst suggests. At several points in the story, it seems likely that events might well have turned out less favorably for Mathieu and the other members of his cell because many of those who crossed their path had been more realistically portrayed as collaborators. Vive la Resistance!
About the author
After writing four standalone novels from 1976 to 1983, Alan Furst launched his Night Soldiers series in 1988. A Hero of France is the fourteenth book in the series. Like many of its predecessors, this book is set in Europe during World War II. Others begin in the previous decade and explore the war’s antecedents. Furst was born in 1941, the year A Hero of France opens.
For related reading
Previously I’ve reviewed a number of books on closely related topics:
- Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies, by Ben MacIntyre—Operation Double Cross: a new spin on why the Normandy invasion succeeded
- Rogue Heroes: The History of the SAS, Britain’s Secret Special Forces Unit that Sabotaged the Nazis and Changed the Nature of War, by Ben MacIntyre—The story of the original special forces
- D-Day Girls: The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II by Sarah Rose—The women who parachuted behind German lines and helped secure the Normandy landing
- Madame Fourcade’s Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France’s Largest Spy Network Against Hitler by Lynne Olson—The truth about the French Resistance, dug out of old records
- The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah—A deeply affecting novel of the French Resistance
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