It’s often said that science fiction is not about the future, but rather the present in which it was written. The same is true for historical fiction. The convincing details, the intricate research, the carefully conceived characters create for readers a past that points directly to the present.
Alan Furst has been mining the time between the World War I and World War II for longer than either war actually lasted. His novels are miracles of economy and concision. He seamlessly brings to life a past that is long gone. But readers immersed in his past can’t help but see it embedded in the present.
His latest novel, A Hero of France is no exception. It’s now 1941, and Paris has fallen, but the French people have not. At least not all of them. Mathieu has elected to fight back, in secret, in any and every way he can. He’s currently helping downed British airmen return to England, to fight again. A small cadre of comrades help him, but the Nazis are aware of what’s going on, and determined to catch then. Is everyone the person they pretend to be? Mathieu’s talent is for reading the loyalties of those around him. As he notes, he can only be wrong once.
From the outside, A Hero of France sounds like a spy thriller, and it’s most certainly tense, thrilling and involves spies of a sort. But the arc here is not as much plot-based as it is character-based. We turn the pages to find out who the characters are and who they will become as much as we do to find out what will become of them. It’s a subtle difference that elevates Furst’s work into a very un-fussy sort of literature.
And while every detail and word feels period-precise, it is indeed impossible not to think of what happens in the novel in terms of our lives today. The world is ever filled with peril, with traitors, with those who are not what they seem. Mathieu’s strength is one that it behooves us all to attend to. We all need to learn to read those around us. The world, our world will always be under threat, and those closest to us can be brave, foolish, strong, wise, charitable or not what they pretend to be – as can we.
In conversation, Alan Furst is every bit as engaging, informative and challenging as his novels. Better still, he has the talent to speak about any one of them in particular while keeping potential readers in suspense. It’s almost as if he is one of his own characters, reading the audience very carefully. You can hear our in-depth conversation about his novel, A Hero of France, by following this link to download the file, or you can listen right here.