Mathieu is his nom de guerre, and, like many of Alan Furst’s leading men, he’s something of a loner, a considered risk-taker who hides his intelligence and sophistication behind a quiet demeanor. He’s good at sizing up people, figuring out if they can be trusted. “And I’d better be,” he says, ”because I can only be wrong once.”
Mathieu is the capable leader of a small Resistance cell in A Hero of France (Random House, digital galley), Furst’s excellent new novel of the shadowy world of espionage. In previous books, he has focused mostly on the twilight years leading up to the war, but here it is March of 1941, and German-occupied Paris is dark and under curfew. Mathieu and his cell help rescue downed RAF pilots and crew members, hiding them in safe houses, securing false identity passes, providing disguises and escorting them to safety — perhaps by train through Vichy France and then to Spain, or in the back of a truck to the countryside and coast to await safe passage to England. It is dangerous, heart-stopping work, but these ordinary people — a professor, a nurse, a schoolteacher, a teen with a bicycle, a widow with a bureaucratic friend, a nightclub owner with connections — prove themselves over and over in extraordinary circumstances. But their actions can only go unnoticed for so long. A fatuous Brit wants to run the network from afar, encouraging riskier acts of sabotage. A German police detective is looking for an informer to penetrate the cell. Then there are the soldiers who will trip a man for no reason, and young street thugs playing at extortion.
The narrative is episodic, and Furst splices tense, action-filled scenes with interludes of relative calm. Mathieu begins a love affair with a neighbor, and adopts — or is adopted by — a Belgian shepherd dog. The writing is atmospheric: a crippled plane tries to land in silvery moonlight, lovers share secrets behind blackout curtains, a cafe owner shrugs when asked about the Resistance. “Monsieur, do you know what goes on in the cafes of Paris? Everything. Of course, one may have a glass of wine, a coffee, and something to eat, but there is more. Love affairs begin, love affairs end, swindlers meet their victims, victims meet their lawyers. But, mostly, the cafe is a place for people to go.” Including the heroes of France.
The London Blitz is a staple of wartime novels and films, offering a dramatic backdrop for stories of courage and romance. The writer Kate Atkinson called it “the dark beating heart” of her novel Life after Life, and the same can be said of Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave is Forgiven (Simon & Schuster, digital galley). His fierce re-imagining of the Nazi bombs shattering buildings and lives is both wide-screen and close-up. Perhaps because his story is loosely based on the letters and wartime experiences of his grandparents, it feels immediate and personal.
England’s entry into the war in 1939 is a call to arms for Britain’s youth, including 18-year-old debutante Mary North, fresh out a Swiss boarding school. Her notion of a glamorous wartime job is quickly dashed by her assignment to a school whose students are being evacuated to the countryside. But not all children are suitable evacuees, including some who are physically disabled or mentally challenged, along with Zachary, the 10-year-old child of a black American musician. Mary convinces nice-guy Tom Shaw, a school administrator turned down for enlistment, to let her teach a small class of these outsiders. Tom and Mary begin a whirlwind courtship that is threatened both by Mary’s attraction to Tom’s best friend, Alistair Heath, an art restorer before he joined up, and the war itself, which sends Alistair to France and those left behind to air raid shelters. Eventually, Alistair will wind up in Malta, under siege by Axis forces, and Mary and her friend Hilda will volunteer as ambulance drivers.
Cleave’s harrowing descriptions of the homefront and battlefield are leavened by witty dialogue and letters among the characters. He also raises issues of race and class that seem shocking by today’s standards. Mary, Tom, Alistair, Hilda, Zachary — and a host of others — come across as complex and believable. You remember the stubborn pride of Zachary’s father, the pursed lips of Mary’s mother, the camaraderie between Alistair and a fellow soldier, the resilience of small children, the bravery of those scared to death. You won’t forget Everyone Brave is Forgiven.