Under Occupation: A Novel
Writing good historical fiction is a particular challenge. Not only must an author craft a good story, they have to get the history correct, especially the mood and setting for the plot. Under Occupation does an excellent job of portraying the mood of Nazi-occupied France, but never seems to build on that historical setting into a truly page-turning suspense story.
The author clearly knows his Parisian geography and history as he captures the dreary life of average citizens just trying to survive the daily grind of occupation. The dingy menace of rationing, shortages, Allied bombing, and the overshadowing presence of the German Gestapo are all vividly portrayed throughout the book.
However, the characters in this novel seem rather one-dimensional, and the author does not spend a lot of time developing either the inner conflict or their external development. The protagonist, Paul Ricard, is a novel writer who reluctantly becomes involved in the Resistance when he encounters a man running from the police on a dark night on the streets. While the author spends a bit of time introducing Ricard, the many secondary characters come and go in a few pages and only a few last the entire book.
Just as critical, a good mystery thriller also needs a compelling villain. The Nazi Gestapo was one of the most brutal and feared secret police forces of the 20th century, and constructing an antagonist to pursue the heroes would have made for a suspenseful throughout the book. Alas, the few glimpses we have of Gestapo officers are short and fleeting, with no real menace or pursuit of our heroes, even when they have clearly begun espionage efforts. Historically, the average lifespan of a Resistance member was about six months as the Gestapo rolled up numerous networks across Europe during the war, yet Paul Ricard never seems in real danger and has little difficulty eluding the desultory efforts by the Germans to capture him.
The overall plot is written almost like a loose screenplay, with small vignettes of problems for Monsieur Ricard to solve, but there is only a loose connection between the various scenes, even when secondary characters reappear.
Finally, there are a few plot points that more than strain credulity. Although the initial action begins with our hero being given a drawing of a new type of German torpedo detonator from a dying Polish shipyard worker, and logically proceeds to Monsieur Ricard trying to use his Polish contacts to obtain a complete detonator, it quickly moves to the unlikely when the heroes try to steal and smuggle a complete German torpedo out of France. This is highly improbable as the typical German World War II submarine torpedo was over 20 feet long and weighed almost 3,000 pounds. How two men would covertly load one on a simple panel truck and then move it from that truck to a small inland canal tugboat to sneak out to the coast without drawing German attention would be pretty incredible.
Overall, this is a novel that has much unfulfilled promise. While it is historically spot on with the mood and atmosphere of occupied Paris, as a spy novel or mystery/thriller it never seems to quite meet its full potential. When the hero makes his final escape from France, the reader is left with neither satisfaction nor relief, just the feeling that there could have been much more.