Review: Midnight in Europe, by Alan Furst
Random House, 2014. 251 pp. $27
Reading Alan Furst’s pre-World War II spy fiction is like eating pastry from the hand of a master chef: You savor it, enjoying the many flavored layers, and sigh when you’re done. Midnight in Europe, his fourteenth effort, is no exception, though whether the flavors meld well or leave as strong or lingering an aftertaste as previous novels is another matter.
Cristián Ferrar is a typical Furst protagonist–brilliant, handsome, escaped from his native country (Spain, in this case), well connected, attracts interesting women, appreciates the good things in life (so must spend a lot of time in Paris), and holds strong principles without having to shout them from the rooftops. A decent man, in other words; but December 1937 will test any European’s sense of decency, not least in Spain, where Franco’s Fascist troops are winning a civil war in which mercy and justice have no meaning.
The Republican forces resisting Franco lack both unity and weapons. Ferrar can do nothing about the political mess strangling his country, but, as a lawyer with a respected firm of international scope, he may know people who might just possibly be willing and able to run guns to the Republicans. However, this is worse than risky business. Hitler and Mussolini are actively supporting Franco, which means the Gestapo will be watching; and even Stalin, who grudgingly supplies the Republicans, won’t let anyone else do so, which means the NKVD will unleash its hit men on nominal allies. Will the democracies help? Don’t even ask. As one character observes, “Europe is a nice neighborhood with a mad dog. Just now the dog is biting Spain, and nobody else in the neighborhood wants to get bitten, so they look away.”
Rueful political irony, a Furst specialty, is a particular pleasure of Midnight in Europe. A Macedonian underworld figure “spent his teenage years fighting Bulgarian bandits. After that, being a gangster was easy.” A scrappy Polish dockworker in Gdansk, upset that German agents are muscling into the waterfront, complains that he hasn’t punched a German “in days.”
Another Furst trademark is atmosphere you can practically eat with a spoon:
Parisians found themselves restless and vaguely melancholy for no evident reason, an annual malady accompanying the nameless season that fell between winter and spring. The streets were quiet–only dog walkers beneath shiny umbrellas and the occasional couple with nowhere to be alone. In the cafés, newspapers on their wooden dowels went unread, as though the patrons refused to read them until they produced better news. A change of government was in the air, though nobody believed it would change anything but itself.
Even so, Midnight in Europe, the thirteenth Furst novel I’ve read, seems too gentle to be a thriller. The only scenes that truly gripped me were those toward the beginning, in Spain, and a couple toward the end. I wish the author had set more of the story in Spain, territory that, if I remember correctly, he hasn’t revisited since a large, breathtaking swath of his first novel, Night Soldiers. Romance moves Ferrar almost as much as politics, and that’s fine, but he just isn’t tested enough, either on the street or in his heart. You sense he can get out of any trouble he gets into, and that nobody he trusts will ever turn on him.
Some years back, a literary agent told me that to sell well, American authors must write thrillers that have American or British protagonists. American readers, he said, won’t buy them otherwise–at least not in large numbers–whereas Europeans don’t trust Americans to get European characters right. Furst has been bucking this trend for years, though Mission to Paris had a European-American protagonist, and Midnight in Europe has scenes in New York.
So I wonder whether market forces (or perceptions of them) have influenced his latest output. His books have generally gotten shorter, softer, and less complex. (Oddly, that relative simplicity doesn’t stop the text of Midnight in Europe from identifying characters when they reappear, as if the reader might have forgotten who they are. This is so out of character for Furst that I suspect an intrusive editorial hand.) In fairness, basing fiction on the dread before the storm is no easy task. Even more ambitious, the latest novels feature spies who aren’t professionals but have volunteered or been coerced into it. Furst clearly admires that scheme and an author who made good use of it, Eric Ambler. (Check out Journey into Fear sometime, and you’ll see what I mean.) But it doesn’t always click.
By all means, if you’re a Furst fan, read Midnight in Europe. But if you’re just starting out with him, try Mission to Paris, which I find the best of the last half-dozen titles. And if you’re in for a longer, wilder ride, try Night Soldiers (and its long, fascinating section on the training of an NKVD agent) or Dark Star.
Disclaimer: I borrowed my reading copy of this book from the public library.