Novel: Three Hours in Paris by Cara Black

A brisk but underwhelming historical spy novel, Cara Black’s Three Hours in Paris (2020) makes one particularly shrewd plot decision: subverting its initial premise in the early chapters. It follows the exploits of Kate Rees, an American woman married to a Welshman and living in the Orkney Islands in the early days of World War II. When the German attack at Scapa Flow leads to personal tragedy, Kate—an experienced sharpshooter from her days on an Oregon farm—craves revenge. Recruited by British intelligence, she undertakes a crash course in spy tradecraft and prepares for an urgent operation behind enemy lines in Paris. The mission: assassinate Adolf Hitler, who will be there to celebrate his conquest of France. Kate’s mission goes disastrously wrong, of course, but while desperately seeking escape, she finds other ways to strike back at the Germans—even as she learns that her deployment to France may be something other than it seems.

Three Hours in Paris clips along at a fast pace, and it’s casually enjoyable, at a high level. Inspired by historical accounts of Hitler’s brief visit to France, Black pivots deftly from her heroine’s obviously doomed-to-fail mission to posit a clever secret history of events that otherwise shaped the outcome of the war. Unfortunately, while solid structural bones give the story a firm foundation, the sentence-level details aren’t especially interesting. Scenes bounce frantically between Kate’s resourceful actions and the efforts of a semi-sympathetic German police officer to track her down, but neither character is all that interesting. As a result, their cat-and-mouse angling is flat, the stakes muted. It does have confident prose and a firm grip on the milieu, though, and the overall narrative—reminiscent of the film Carve Her Name With Pride—is generally entertaining. I suspect this one will unfold more satisfyingly for readers not already overly saturated with experience in this genre.

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