BookZone: ‘Under Occupation’

The cover for Alan Furst's "Under Occupation"

BookZone is a book review column shared by Jo Giese and Ed Warren.

For decades, I have been an avid reader of Alan Furst’s WWII spy novels. His spare, precise prose produces a film noir immediacy that makes the wartime stress seem very real. 

Furst’s newest novel, “Under Occupation,” takes place in Paris, 1942. On a sunny, late October day, “all over the city, people were in a good mood, the commonplace exchanges of Parisian life … were delivered with intimacy and warmth.” But beneath the surface, everyday life in Paris had been massively altered by German occupation. Germany commandeered virtually all of France’s oil and gasoline, taxis ran on wood-burning stoves situated on their roofs, and the few private vehicles mostly burned coal. Apartments were freezing and hot water and soap for baths were virtually non-existent. Food was severely rationed, only chicory “coffee” was available, bread had the “same consistency as cotton” and all the best wine (except that kept for the occupying military) had been shipped to Germany. 

Physical deprivation, however, was the least of Parisian worries. Mutual trust among its citizens had nearly dissolved. Some curried favor with the occupying military and even those who were not fascist became opportunists “who would do anything to rise above their competitors now that the game has changed.” Blackmail was rife because all one needed to do was “to drop a word in someone’s ear (the Gestapo).” 

“Under Occupation”’s main character is Paul Ricard, a writer of spy and detective fiction. This seems an odd choice because “Under Occupation” is itself a spy novel about the French Resistance. But this choice allows Furst to pay explicit homage to Eric Ambler, the pre-WWII writer of spy fiction including, most importantly, “A Coffin for Dimitrios.” 

Ricard was drawn into the French Resistance purely by chance when a Polish engineer being chased by the police shoved into Ricard’s pocket an engineering schematic of a novel torpedo detonator for German submarines attacking British merchant ships. From this chance encounter, Ricard contacts the Resistance who, recognizing the danger this new torpedo and detonator poses to British ships, persuades Ricard to go with a Polish woman, Kasia, to Kiel in Northern Germany where the new detonator and torpedo are being manufactured by enslaved Polish workers. Thereafter, Ricard and Kasia become increasingly involved in espionage on behalf of the British with Kasia playing a critical supporting role. 

“Under Occupation” is Furst’s 15th WWII spy novel and perhaps at 78, he wants his fans to appreciate where his novels fit into the expanding espionage genre. As Ricard’s British handler, Adrian, observes in appraising Ricard’s (and hence Furst’s) novels, “You have something in common with Ambler.” Your main characters are neither detectives nor government agents but instead persons, almost accidentally “caught up in the politics of his time.” As Trotsky once said, “You might not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” 

Ed Warren currently lives in Malibu, having practiced law for many years with a large international law firm in Washington D.C.