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Review: Three Hours in Paris, by Cara Black
Soho, 2020. 360 pp. $17

One Sunday in late June 1940, Kate Rees parachutes from a British airplane into France and reaches Paris, a city she knows well from before the war, now barely weeks into the German Occupation. But this visit, she won’t be frequenting the cafés she recalls so fondly, or the booksellers by the Seine, places where her late husband courted her. Kate’s in Paris to shoot Hitler, because British Intelligence has decoded German wire traffic and learned he’ll be there.

A gripping premise, to be sure, and from first to last, Three Hours in Paris never lets up. I admire the storytelling, which lives inside a flashing sign that says, “no — and furthermore.” But I have to take issue with just about everything else, because if the breathless pace ever paused, the absurd circumstances defy belief.

This famous photograph, from June 23, 1940, records Hitler’s brief, only visit to Paris. Flanking him are (left) Albert Speer, minister of armaments and war production, and Arno Breker, an artist. (Courtesy U.S. National Archives and Records Administration; public domain in the United States)

Kate’s American, a neutral citizen in June 1940, which makes her a peculiar choice for such a mission. Though she’s a crack shot, having grown up on a ranch in Oregon, that’s her sole qualification, aside from her American-accented French. What’s more, her handlers somehow gloss over the eventuality that she might be caught, and for some reason, she doesn’t press them. That’s typical of her training, rudimentary and brief, and of the vague, amateurish atmosphere of British Intelligence, rather like a classroom that’s slipped the teacher’s control. (To be fair, this isn’t the famed Special Operations Executive, but its predecessor, known as Section D.)

The German side of this equation seems almost as absurd. We have Gunter Hoffman, a Munich homicide detective somehow working for the Reichsicherheitsdienst, or security service, assigned to track down who fired at Hitler. In a very tired trope, Hoffman doesn’t particularly care for the Führer; with so many novels about disaffected Germans, it’s a wonder the war ever happened. But that’s less the problem here than the overhyped interservice rivalries. Those add a few “no — and furthermores” for the detective to grapple with, improbable as they are.

As for Paris, the city seems wide open for business, an unusual situation for a Sunday, as any Francophile traveler knows. Finally, Kate’s mission quickly morphs into much bigger game, which ups the stakes, always a plus, but at further expense to credulity.

However, to her credit, Black manages to finesse a few of these clunkers, countering expectations. That’s where Three Hours in Paris does best; nothing is certain, ever, and Kate never knows whom to trust, if anybody. If the author has chosen an unlikely protagonist on an improbable mission, she makes up for that in part by wedging her heroine into a tight space and tightens it further without respite. Human laxity does Kate a favor, every now and again, but every time she slips through a net, she’s earned her escape with ingenious, on-the-spot thinking, and you know her respite will be temporary.

That’s Black’s payoff from deciding to use an untrained agent; everything’s a surprise, nothing has been planned. But Kate’s up against a crack detective in Hoffman, tireless, equally adept at quick thinking. It’s a pleasure following his reasoning, wondering how he’ll box Kate in; you have to admire his skill. Black’s known for her Aimée Leduc mysteries, set in Paris, and the author has police procedure and the city down pat; I’m sure she realizes her Sunday portrayal stretches the truth. If the military and espionage operations appear fuzzy, Paris comes in crystal clear:

She took a side street and familiar scents assailed her: the tangy odor from a green metal pissoir, a whiff of a woman’s perfume, the acrid smoke of a hand-rolled cigarette. Rapid-fire Parisian argot spilled out of a shop, now bearing signs of future rationing regulations, and onto the sidewalk. The conversation was punctuated by the snort of an ice wagon horse, the clatter of the wagon’s wheels and the clip-clop of hooves on the cobbles, the flower seller’s shouts. The Paris she knew, if more subdued.

You have to like the two main characters, though neither comes through with much depth. Emotional transitions happen in an eyeblink, and more than a few sentences in these passages restate the obvious. But if you read Three Hours in Paris, you’re reading for a high-octane plot, and in that, the novel delivers.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.