Up Front With Martin B. Deutsch
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Furst Read: A Summer of Engrossing War Novels
Thursday, August 3, 2017 -- You're probably looking for some relaxing beach or resort reading during what is the slowest period of the year for business travel. I'm suggesting a pair of historical novels from a series by an acclaimed author and they're guaranteed to keep you engaged.
Although the subject matter revolves around the most devastating conflict in mankind's long and mangled history, these two books are compelling and satisfying. They entertain and inform and don't have to be read in any particular order.
I've reviewed Alan Furst novels several times before, including in 2007 and 2009 and most recently in 2014. Sample his work and I'll wager you'll be as addicted as I am.
A HERO OF FRANCE
Night Soldiers, Furst's masterful collection of World War II era novels, has a new addition titled A Hero of France. Released last year, this bestseller spans six tense months beginning in March, 1941.
The novel is comprised of a series of vignettes about a small, Paris-based Resistance group that specializes in bringing Royal Air Force pilots into Spain, where others undertake the final journey to smuggle them back to England. The head of this courageous ensemble is a mature but youthful French business executive who goes by Mathieu, a contrived name to hide his true identity. Mathieu and his colleagues work their way through a series of rescues, each one at least as dangerous as the one that preceded it. The threat of discovery by the Nazis is ever present, too.
Besides Mathieu, the cell includes Annmarie and Chantal, a pair of aristocratic socialites; Lisette, a bicycle-riding teenager who carries messages for Mathieu; Max de Lyon, an arms dealer turned nightclub owner who helps finance Mathieu's efforts and provides a safe meeting place; and Daniel, a Jewish teacher motivated by the Nazi's takeover of his family's business. Also present is a character Furst readers will recall from other Night Soldiers novels: S. Kolb, a shadowy underground figure who disappears as mysteriously as he appears. And, of course, there's a love interest. Mathieu has an intense affair with the lovely Joelle, who lives in the same hotel but is unaware of his work for the Resistance.
A character I found of particular interest is Otto Broehm, a German police officer assigned by the Nazis to undermine the Paris Resistance units. Unlike the Nazis, already known for their brutal interrogations, Broehm is a determined but human antagonist and he uses an avuncular approach. Puffing on his pipe, reminiscent of the fictional Inspector Maigret, he orders coffee, and sometimes snacks, for the new captives. The approach works sometimes and doesn't succeed at others. Will Broehm break up Mathieu's team or will he fail?
The tension mounts slowly, intensifies and never quite lets up as Furst masterfully crafts another page-turner. You suspect that something has to go wrong and that these heroic figures of the early French Resistance must ultimately stumble or run into serious roadblocks. Historical accuracy, as always, is at work here, but Furst and foremost A Hero of France is a truly compelling story.
THE POLISH OFFICER
Not too long after finishing A Hero of France, I read The Polish Officer, the one book in Furst's Night Soldiers series that I hadn't previously encountered. A crisp thriller from 1995, it begins in September, 1939, the month Hitler invaded Poland, the first neighbor he overpowered by force. (Of historical note: About two weeks after the Nazis entered Poland and overran the west, the Russians began occupying eastern Poland.) This Blitzkrieg motivated Great Britain and France to declare war on Germany. Around 60 million people (about three percent of the world's population in 1940) would perish in a conflict that probably should never have happened, at least since the world's leaders had decided earlier in the century that World War I was the "war to end all wars."
The titular Polish officer, a military cartographer before the war, is Captain Alexander de Milja, a career soldier recruited to serve in what eventually becomes the Polish underground. The brooding Milja is a stoic--he early on acknowledges his own death is likely close at hand--and a determined operator who becomes involved in several tense escapades. He secretly transports the Polish National Reserve out of Warsaw via a workaround train, keeps Ukrainian hijackers at bay, evades both the Russian NVKD and German SS and, oh, yes, deals with Russian and French mistresses. In his late thirties and from an aristocratic family, the fictional de Milja will help shape Poland's early resistance to the Nazi occupation.
The enemies, Russian and German, are always close at hand and the Germans are rapidly overrunning an outmanned and outgunned Poland. De Milja's situation is further complicated by a personal problem--an institutionalized wife who he is unable to see on a regular basis and who is also at risk as the war progresses.
Like Furst's other novels, The Polish Officer is characterized by his signature background of vague oppression and imminent danger. It's as close as we might come to experiencing the everyday lives of the people who fought for their country and to understand the myriad sacrifices required.
I can guarantee that Furst's you-are-there thrillers will keep you involved until the very end. If Alan Furst writes about it, we can look forward to an intelligent and readable insight into the World War II era.
This column is Copyright © 2017 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2017 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Martin B. Deutsch. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.