Wednesday September 5

A Breathless Entry: Introducing Trapeze by Simon Mawer

With this latest novel, Simon Mawer has made a very classy entry into the realm of spy thrillers. In the past, he has created a glorious fictional history for an actual Bauhaus masterpiece of a house in The Glass Room and has detailed the highs and pitfalls of climbing in The Fall, so it’s no secret to his readers that he has the writing chops to create vivid character and scene. But in Trapeze, there is a different kind of breathlessness, the kind we look for in a quickly moving good read.

Marian Sutro, a bilingual young woman of mixed British/French parentage, is primed for adventure from the very first pages of Trapeze (which was perhaps more aptly titled The Girl Who Fell from the Sky in Britain). Over the course of the novel she is recruited by the Inter-Services Research Bureau and assumes a variety of names and identities in service of a noble goal — helping the French resistance defeat the Germans. World War II demands a kind of bravery that Marian would have never needed in her quotidian life and she lives up to the challenge as we inevitably cheer her on. But we only know what she knows and both the reader and character are in for some surprises.

We follow her through training in Scotland to her posting in the French countryside and then in Paris. Needless to say, not everyone in these dangerous times is happy about having to rely on a young woman, and indeed her youth can be misleading. She gets the job done, and in the end is not quite sure whether she’s been used by her superiors to make something happen because of her previous emotional connections. But no matter, because Marian is a feisty heroine mostly focused on the task at hand.  But, of course, there are men, both new ones and one in particular from her past, who tend to complicate matters.

It’s hard to resist favorable comparisons with Alan Furst, whose moody novels are also great fun to read (and I highly recommend his newest, Mission to Paris). The very good thing for those of us who delight in this genre is that Mawer brings a deft hand and clever mind to his own take on the World War II espionage tale. Is Marian Sutro a character we may see in another installment? Perhaps — and I, for one, would be happy to spend more time with her.

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The Glass Room
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Mendel's Dwarf
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Excerpt: Trapeze by Simon Mawer The plane tilts, turning in a wide circle, engines roaring. Up in the cockpit she can imagine the pilot searching, searching, straining to see the tiny glimmers of torchlight, which means that they are expected down there in the moonlight. A light comes on in the roof of the fuselage, a single, unblinking red eye. The dispatcher gives the thumbs up. “HE’S FOUND IT!”
   There’s a note of admiration and triumph in his shout, as though this proves what wonders his crew are able to perform, to come all this way in the darkness, eight hundred miles from home, and find a pinprick of light in a blackened world. He attaches the static line from their parachutes to the rail on the roof of the fuselage and double checks the buckles of their harnesses. The aircraft makes one pass over the dropping zone and she can hear the sound of the containers leaving the bomb bay and see them flash beneath, their canopies billowing open. Then the machine banks and turns and steadies for the second run. “YOUR TURN NOW!” the dispatcher yells at the pair of them.
   “Merde, alors!” Benoit mouths to Marian, and grins. He looks infuriatingly unconcerned, as though this is all in the normal run of things, as though as a matter of course people throw themselves out of aircraft over unknown countryside in the middle of the night.
 
   Merde alors!
She sits with her feet out through the hole, in the slipstream, like sitting on a rock with your feet in the water, the current pulling at them. Benoit is right behind her. She can feel him against the bulk of her parachute pack, as though the pack has become a sensitive extension of her own body. She says a prayer, a baby prayer pulled out of childhood memory, but nevertheless a prayer and therefore a sign of weakness: God, please look after me. Which means, perhaps, Father look after me, or Maman look after me, but whatever it means she doesn’t want any sign of weakness now, not at this moment of deliverance with the slipstream rushing past her and the void beneath, while the dispatcher gives her a nod that’s meant to inspire confidence but only brings with it the horror of superstition, that you must never congratulate yourself, never applaud, never even wish anyone good luck. Merde alors! That was all you ever said. Merde alors! She thinks, a prayer of a kind, as the red light blinks off and the green light comes on and the dispatcher shouts “GO!” and there’s his hand on her back and she lets go, plunging from the rough comfort of the fuselage into the raging darkness over France.
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Simon Mawer Portrait © Robert Hales (via SimonMawer.com)

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