Novel: Under Occupation by Alan Furst

Early in Alan Furst’s latest World War II spy thriller Under Occupation (2019), there’s a casual, telling passage that speaks to my running impression of the author’s later novels. At a publisher’s party, the protagonist, a detective novelist named Paul Ricard, meets another writer and has the following exchange:

“…Simenon, for God’s sake, he must write a book a week, and they sell like crazy.”
 “Always the same book!” Duchenne whined. “That boring Maigret!”
“But people buy them, it’s an addiction.”

I read this, accurately or not, as a veiled meta-rejoinder to readers bemoaning the striking similarities that can be found in virtually all of Furst’s novels. After all, Under Occupation is the fifteenth entry in Furst’s “shared universe” sequence of historical wartime thrillers. Aside from certain details of tradecraft and milieu, it does very little to differentiate itself from its predecessors. Yet here I am, still buying and reading and enjoying it, so clearly the author is doing something right.

Ricard is a writer of popular genre fiction in 1942 Paris. Life under the Nazi occupation hasn’t been particularly unkind to Ricard, but when he witnesses a shooting in the streets and finds himself in possession of what appears to be a detonator schematic, his patriotism is stirred. Cautiously, at first, he wades into a high-stakes world of anti-fascist espionage, aiding first in the smuggling of German naval secrets from Polish engineers to British intelligence, and later assisting in escape line activities from occupied Europe to neutral Spain.

Under Occupation is a short, fast read, a brisk entertainment with extremely familiar ingredients for those steeped in the series. Ricard is a true Furstian hero—rugged, idealistic, attractive, virile, and a resourceful survivor who overcomes an initial reluctance to become a key asset of anti-German resistance. The novel’s plot follows the usual formula, escalating through several episodes before delivering the hero to a place of relieved reflection on his adventures. In other words, there isn’t much here that Furst hasn’t done better elsewhere—with the possible exception of Ricard’s partner-in-crime Kasia, a spirited Polish lesbian friend of his, who quickly becomes his key collaborator. Still, Ricard is likable enough, the world is immersive, and the book reads with the usual effortless gusto. Other than getting shorter and more formulaic, Furst’s work hasn’t changed much over the years, but he’s still really quite good at what he does. What can I say? It’s an addiction.

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