Twice in the span of a few dozen pages, the author refers to Eric Ambler, a novelist who specialized in World War II–era tales of ordinary men thrust into extraodinary service as spies of one type or another—tales, in other words, much like this one. Along with his excellent use of primary research, Furst draws generously from secondary sources for inspiration. Other creative touchstones, in this saga of France during the 1940s, include the novels of Georges Simenon and the films of Jean Renoir. (Each man receives a glancing, telling mention from Furst). It’s a story of Gallic wartime intrigue for readers already steeped in the ways of French culture and in the plot lines of Ambler, of Graham Greene, of John le Carré.
Jean-Claude Casson, as Furst calls his Ambleresque hero, produces films that are successful enough to earn him a life of high-bourgeois ease in the fashionable 16th Arrondissement of Paris. With a world-weary smile, Casson accepts the round of comfortable compromise that appears to be his lot. But after May 1940, when the Nazi Occupation begins to settle upon his city, he discovers that there are compromises and then there are compromises. When a chance comes to perform an undercover operation in Spain, ostensibly on behalf of British Intelligence, he takes it. But the mission goes awry, information about it falls into German hands, and the Nazis use that information to pressure Casson into becoming a double agent. Alongside such misadventures, a romance takes hold between Casson and a tragically lonely actress named Citrine, who steps into the flickering candlelight of Furst’s imagination as if she were fresh from a story by Guy de Maupassant or a song by Édith Piaf.
Mystique is everything to Furst, and mystery matters very little. The question of who betrayed Casson to the Gestapo spurs no investigation and finds no answer; it’s met, instead, with a “C’est la guerre” shrug. What Furst cares about is the intersection of a certain place, a certain moment, and a certain kind of man. While he explores that territory with real panache (or is “élan” the right term?), he also carries his romanticism a bit too far. The finale, for example—meant to strike a chord that is astonishing yet inevitable—falls short on both counts. The destiny of Casson and the destiny of France have much in common, but they are not identical.