This hero scored a zero

“A Hero of France” by Alan Furst (Random House, 234 pages, $27).

During the dozen years I have been writing this column, I have been lucky to work with gifted editors who provide valuable direction. One editor told me a book reviewer cannot like every book. Regular readers of this column expect me to pan a book occasionally. Today is one of those days.

This isn’t easy for me because the book in question was written by one of my favorite writers. I have interviewed him. I love his work. Alan Furst has earned his reputation as the master of the historical spy novel. He sets his novels in various European locales during the years leading up to and during World War Two. I was eagerly awaiting his latest offering “A Hero of France.”

I’m not his only devoted fan. Furst has developed a huge readership and this new book was an instant best-seller. The author has been on a roll lately; his last several books have been exceptional. Expectations for this new one were high.

It takes him a long time to write one of these espionage novels. He conducts exhaustive research to be certain every period detail from the bistro on the corner to the seams on a woman’s stockings is exactly right. There’s a tone he creates through multiple layers of intrigue, urbane dialogue, and requisite moments of furtive passion and sensuality.

“A Hero of France” is set mostly in Paris in 1941. France had been split into sectors controlled by the occupying German Army or their French collaborators, the Vichy government. Furst’s protagonist is a French Resistance leader named Mathieu.

Mathieu is involved in a dangerous game. The Allies are sending bombers to stage attacks upon the Germans. Anti-aircraft defenses have been taking a toll on these missions. As Allied planes are shot down, the surviving crew members who have parachuted into occupied France become the subjects of cloak and dagger rescue operations.

The Germans want to capture these air crews. Mathieu and his group of Resistance fighters are determined to save these men and will go to great lengths to smuggle them out of the country and back to their forces so that they can fly more missions against Germany.

This cat and mouse game requires all manner of subterfuges. The fliers are given forged identity papers and are disguised so that they can get across the border into Spain. Informers are on the lookout. The Germans are offering substantial rewards to those who are willing to turn in fugitive fliers.

This sounds like the recipe for a real thriller doesn’t it? Unfortunately the story in “A Hero of France” never really comes together. There’s a wooden quality to the action. The scenery, even in the mountains, feels flat. This reviewer found himself wondering if the author was simply going through the motions. After so many lovely books an author is entitled to one dud, right? Even the ending was, yawn, boring.

Mathieu never really comes alive on the pages. The villains are one dimensional. Even the love scenes seemed mechanical. The language Furst employs is less sophisticated than usual. The cynic in me wonders if this was a ploy, the author making a conscious effort to dumb it down a bit. He’s such a fine writer. Hopefully this was just an isolated bump on what has been a splendid road so far.

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