Random House, $27
In “Under Occupation,” Alan Furst’s latest novel, he has once again turned to the subject that fascinates him, the political and military history of Europe before and during World War II, with an emphasis on espionage.
His earlier book “The Spies of Warsaw” seemed to me very much in the vein of John le Carré, in that its spy-hero, Mercier, spent as much time in the library as he did in the field, reading scholarly articles on the theory and practice of tank warfare, which enabled him to correctly predict where and how Germany would attack France.
Not so in “Under Occupation,” whose central character, Paul Ricard, is (like Mr. Furst himself) a writer of popular espionage novels. His life after he transitions from writing about spies to being one becomes almost as melodramatic as James Bond’s. Living in occupied Paris in 1942, he is thrust into the world of secret intelligence when a dying man with a Gestapo bullet in him thrusts a piece of paper into his coat pocket. Driven by patriotism and hatred of the Nazis, who have polluted his beloved Paris, he brings the missive to the attention of “the civil servants,” who are actually British intelligence.
Despite his amateur status, they immediately send him into the field, untrained, on missions that escalate in importance, danger, and improbability. The piece of paper that started it all is a schematic for the detonator of German torpedoes. When he shows it to the British, they ask him to penetrate the heavily fortified shipyard deep in Germany where the U-boats are built in order to find its source.
It takes him only an evening to unearth its author, a Polish engineer compelled into forced labor by the Germans. When Ricard returns with that information, he is ordered to return to the sub base and, with the Pole’s help, steal one of the detonators, a feat also accomplished with relative ease. But this is only the beginning.
The expertise and authority of Mr. Furst’s earlier heroes is largely replaced by luck, for Ricard is incredibly naive. He actually signs his real name to a receipt for secret funds given him by the British, who then instruct him to return to the shipyard to steal and smuggle back an intact, functional torpedo. This would strike most of us as Mission: Impossible; a quick search of the internet reveals that it would have been 23 feet long, weighing a ton and a half.
But it turns out to be a cinch. Though the submarines are protected from the R.A.F. and from saboteurs by elaborate safeguards, the torpedoes themselves are stored in a deserted wooden shed, secured only by a padlock. Ricard and an accomplice shoot the lone guard, kick down the flimsy door, wheel a torpedo on a dolly to their waiting truck, and drive away with it. His colleague, Adrian, tells him, “The Germans like to think of themselves as efficient, but they aren’t really.”
That must be why Ricard is able to travel mostly undetected through enemy territory and, when he must, escape and outwit the Gestapo in scenes so full of derring-do that they verge on slapstick, like the one in which, as the Germans close in, he commandeers a wealthy French couple’s limousine after a boxing match with its elderly occupants, careens through Paris as though it were Le Mans, and finally, cornered in a department-store elevator by a Gestapo agent, strolls away free when the other shoppers close ranks and wedge the agent into the back of the car.
And when Ricard’s fellow agent Kasia is kidnapped and held for ransom by corrupt members of the occupation authority, Ricard concocts a harebrained plan to save not only her but the ransom as well, without being captured himself. Adrian listens to his scheme and asks him, “Ricard, forgive me, but has it ever occurred to you that you’re not cut out for this business?”
“Many times,” Ricard answers, and it is up to Adrian to free Kasia.
Like the heroes of Mr. Furst’s other novels, Ricard is irresistible to women, but though there are sexy scenes at regular intervals, Ricard doesn’t really get much action. Kasia makes several appearances wearing only bra and panties, but she makes it clear that she prefers girls. Annie Legros, his publisher’s secretary, to whom he is very attracted, saddens him by leaving Paris for parts unknown. Leila, his “intensely desirable” handler, returns his interest, invites him to her apartment, and plies him with cocaine, but though they spend the night in bed, they get only to the fooling-around stage before she falls asleep.
The only woman with whom he actually has sex is Romany, of whom he seems to be a friend-with-benefits until she asks him for money the next morning.
Mr. Furst does get some interesting mileage out of the interface between Ricard and his doppelganger, the hero of the novel on which he sporadically works between episodes. The result is a meta-fictional departure from his earlier writing: Mr. Furst himself is a spy-novel writer who has written a novel about a spy writer who is writing a spy novel, making “Under Occupation” a book about itself.
We are privy to Ricard’s creative process, which is very by-the-numbers. His upright hero needs a love interest who shouldn’t be boring, like a wife, or illegitimate, like a mistress, and so he invents a girl who is attractive but “prim.” He sets the action in Bucharest, though he’s never been there, which entails putting in some time with Fodor’s and the Guide Bleu. When his girlfriend’s father is made expendable by a plot twist, he has to decide what to do with the old man: “Let him go? Not in Ricard’s detective novels, or anyone else’s. So then, kill him,” Ricard decides.
“Under Occupation” is not Mr. Furst’s best novel. It has a lot of moving parts, taking a formulaic approach to the many — perhaps too many — stories it tells, the result being an episodic narrative with a dizzying number of characters and incidents that are sometimes only tenuously connected.
Still, it has the strengths for which Mr. Furst is well known: He is an expert on his chosen period, and so perhaps we should take him at his word that the Germans really were bumbling and careless. He has the good sense not to set “Under Occupation” in a city he’s never seen. Having himself lived in Paris, he is able to bring the neighborhoods, the buildings, the restaurants and parks and boulevards of that great city in its time of crisis to life with vividness and skill that make “Under Occupation” well worth reading.
Richard Horwich, who taught English at Brooklyn College and New York University, writes about literature, theater, food, and golf. He lives in East Hampton.
Alan Furst lives in Sag Harbor. He will read from “Under Occupation” at Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor on Friday, Nov. 29, at 5 p.m.