If I boil down my list of what makes a good book, I am left with the following: clear, precise language, a well-designed plot, a memorable sense of place, engaging characters. Alan Furst’s A HERO OF FRANCE meets these standards. It is a story of French Resistance agents who help downed British pilots to return to Britain. That the salient characters are ordinary people whose bravery is devoid of hubris makes their story all the more touching. Presented with the choice of joining les colabos who aid and abet the Nazis, Mathieu, aristocratic Annemarie, elegant Chantal, bar owner Jules, a few others prefer to risk their lives in order to liberate their country.
Furst tells the story of these heroes without adding any unnecessary frills. He writes in crisply precise language that is as elegant in its apparent simplicity a glass of the best French wine. Dive into this book and, as it happens when you sip good French wine, a rich complexity is your reward. The reminders that France is, for the moment, a conquered country are present in streetlamps painted blue, in the sounds of police patrol, in the reek of old uniforms in the flea market, at the smell of putrefying on the floor of a boucherie chevaline, in the smell of coffee made with chicory, and nuts, in the way tired Parisians shift from foot to foot as they wait in longer and longer lines. But expect no tugging at your heartstrings. Furst is above that. He builds characters who do what they must because that is the right thing. There is no dithering, no hesitation, no hand wringing. Who would not love to meet such people? I found them all so real, so decent I feel honored to have met them, if only in print.
Ex-tank commander Mathieu, who leads a Resistance cell, is no D’Artagnan. His story does not call for flourishes. He is a patriot without speeches, without slogans. If he thinks, briefly, about what he has had to give up in order to lead his group of Resistants, he does not s indulge in self-pity. There is a point, where Furst flashes his amazing understanding of French character, “He’s French—not so much afraid of dying as afraid of doing wrong.” That makes me think of knights, paladins, of D’Artagnan minus the braggadocio. This is the kind of person needed to defeat monsters. This the kind of person who returns to an everyday metier--skip the political office. On his war work is done, he goes on with his life. Please note the implied emphasis on the word life, for this is at the heart of Furst’s writing. This is a book about difficult choices and difficult times. But ultimately, it is praise song to life. This is the reason its characters leap off the page and stay with you long after you closed the book. The ability to write such a book is the mark of a master.