In 1943, Paris groans under the heel of the German occupier. After an intense chase, several French Resistance agents are captured by the SS, two of whom are the wife and daughter of Harry Mitchell, a British cryptographer. So begins Night Flight to Paris, a World War II thriller by David Gilman.
Mitchell’s wife, Suzanne, and daughter, Danielle, wind up in the hands of SS-Standartenführer Heinrich Stoltz of the Sicherheitsdienst, the SD. Tall, blond, and blue-eyed, Stoltz is the epitome of the Nazi Aryan, cruel and ruthless, and the primary antagonist of the novel. Stoltz takes them to the notorious La Santé Prison in Paris for a brutal torture session, where Suzanne dies. This isn’t much of a spoiler, since it happens very early on.
But Mitchell’s daughter still lives, and he’s determined to rescue her. To do this, he’s recruited into the Special Operations Executive – the SOE – Britain’s secret agency dedicated to sabotage, espionage, and reconnaissance behind enemy lines. At first, he’s working as a codebreaker at the prestigious Bletchley Park, an English country house that became the epicenter of Britain’s codebreaking efforts in World War II. He’s given an intense two-week training, then sent off to France. His primary mission is to extract a German scientist, whose knowledge will prove useful to the Allied war effort. However, Danielle is never far from his mind as he makes his way toward Paris, and plans to rescue her on his own.
At first, Mitchell parachutes into the French countryside, where takes charge of a small group of Resistance fighters. Far from being a united force, there are factions within factions, all competing for who will be on top in postwar France. The two most prominent groups are the Communists (who, ironically, up until the German invasion of the USSR, were actually against the war) and the Gaullists, the center-right followers of the exiled French Army officer, General Charles de Gaulle. Complicating matters, there appears to be a mole within Mitchell’s group, an informant for the hated Milice, the collaborationist Vichy Regime’s security force.
If I have a criticism of the novel, is that we spend a little too much time in the countryside. But there are a few battles with the Waffen-SS and Milice to keep us entertained. However, when Mitchell does reach the City of Lights, the pacing picks up nicely. There are numerous subplots that interconnect, like the aforementioned mole and French Resistance faction, but also a lot of petty, yet intriguing, infighting among the German occupiers themselves.
Heinrich Stoltz is at the center of this storm, juggling an assortment of rival agencies. There’s the SS, the Nazi Party’s elite paramilitary force, the SD, which is the SS Intelligence Service, and the dreaded Gestapo, which actually is not an “official” Nazi Party organization, but rather a State agency. However, in practice, the Gestapo was run by the SS, making it the brutal arm of the Third Reich. Many Gestapo men were also SS officers like SS-Brigadeführer Carl Oberg, head of the Gestapo and all German security forces in occupied France. Added to this mix is the Abwehr, the Military Intelligence, comprised of men like Hauptmann Koenig, who is on Stotlz’s staff. Koenig is an interesting character, a not very brutal man assigned to carry out brutal orders.
Night Flight to Paris covers well-trodden ground in its occupied France circa World War II setting, but the prose is crisp and fast-paced, and the plot twisty enough to keep you flipping pages. There’s a reason why so many books are set in Europe during World War II, since it’s one of the most interesting and dramatic points in human history. Night Flight to Paris follows in that tradition and delivers.
David Gilman Interview
1) What inspired you to write Night Flight to Paris?
The period has always interested me, especially how it might have been to live under an oppressor and the demands made on the physical and moral well-being of those occupied. Another reason, and one which drives the story, is sending someone into such danger who was hardly someone considered hero material. Harry Mitchell is a middle-aged academic whose experiences in WW1 placed him firmly in the pacificist role. What drives him is to rescue his French wife and child who did not escape France when the Germans invaded. And the reason behind this is that there is a traitor in the French Resistance. So Mitchell’s role is two-fold. Get his wife and child out of Gestapo hands in Paris and uncover the traitor. And from the start, when he volunteers to go into France with the Special Operations Executive, everything goes wrong.
2) What research did you do prior to writing the novel?
I read widely about living under the occupation of Paris, especially how a French woman lived in the city during the war. I also went through dozens of books written from first-hand experience and works written by those who served with SOE or who were part of the establishment of that extraordinary organisation. Street names have changed from the war period, so I had to make sure that when I wrote about a particular place that it existed. By way of a brief example: when crossing a particular bridge across the Seine, I had to know that there was an anti-aircraft gun unit there. And although many people believe allied forces did not bomb that Paris, they did. They heavily bombed the Renault factory on an island in the Seine and marshalling yards close to the city, causing the loss of hundreds of French lives.
3) Was there anything in particular that you cut out of earlier drafts?
No, my work seldom gets major restructuring. I might well change direction from where I thought I was going, but I knew I was going to plunge my hero into the worst kind of mayhem – and that always unfolds as I write. What was important for me was to recount the lives of ordinary French men and women, many of whom were extraordinarily courageous, while others betrayed their fellow citizens. This interplay with characters forces my hero, Mitchell, to change his ways and face the reality that his actions can cause the death of innocent people.
4) Was Heinrich Stolz, the SD/Gestapo officer and the primary antagonist of the novel, based on a historical figure? For example, the chief of police and SS in France, Carl Oberg, is mentioned in the book, so he exists in the novel’s continuity. I was just wondering was something of an amalgam of various SS officers.
History shows us time and time again how many of those we consider monsters, and the acts they perpetrated were often family men, cultured, well-educated, who believed that every harsh, often inhuman act they committed was necessary. They were not all thugs, but such distorted behaviour from those others was by far the most frightening.
5) Likewise, was Harry Mitchell based on anyone in specific?
He’s a figment of my imagination, but I had a very clear physical picture of him. It is quite possible that when you spend so much time researching and seeing how ‘ordinary’ so many of these agents were that elements of these brave individuals must have crept into his characterisation. But it was not only Harry Mitchell I was keen to portray. I created strong female characters as well, and in places, they proved to be key elements in the novel.
6) Your novel mentions the various factions within the French Resistance. Do you think they were an effective force against the German occupation, or were they too divided amongst themselves?
That might be debatable. They were certainly riven, and evidence suggests one group might betray those of a different political persuasion. The Resistance caused problems for the German forces, there’s no doubt, and many innocent French paid the price in reprisals against the local population.
7) There are some officers on Stolz’s staff that had an Army rank rather than SS rank – e.g. Hauptmann Koenig, rather than Haupsturmfuehrer Koenig. Was this intentional?
Yes, I wanted the mix because that was how I understood it to be. There was often conflict between the Wehrmacht officers and those of the SS and SD, and that allowed me to express different points of view, emotions and inter-departmental antagonism.
8) Are there any myths about World War II and the German occupation of France that you wanted to dispel with your novel?
Pretty much what I have mentioned previously in that the different characters show us elements of behaviour in various situations. We all know there were collaboration and betrayal, that’s the human condition, and I think we would have experienced the same issues were we occupied. The characters are the ones we must identify with and how they behave.
9) Will there be a sequel to Night Flight to Paris?
I have been asked by many readers of the book to write a sequel, and my publisher would also be happy to have a follow-on. I have a title in mind and a broad concept of what to do with the story but I am very busy with two running series right now so I do not think it will happen, if at all, for quite some time.
10) What are you working on currently?
I have an ongoing series set in the 14th century – Master of War – with a bunch of characters that my readers love and the 7th book, Shadow of the Hawk, was published in hardback in February this year. I also wrote a contemporary thriller a year ago – The Englishman – which was very well received, so I wrote another in that series that I have just finished and am writing the third, and then it is back to Master of War #8.