- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 22, 2002

"Blood of Victory" is Alan Furst's seventh novel. It's the first to get the proper mainstream launching the author has long merited. Happily for author and readers, within the second post-week publication this splendidly suspenseful, enviably well written novel has already made it to the bestseller lists.
Alan Furst has taken upon himself once again to delve into the nebulous and dangerous world of Europe between the time of the Spanish Civil War and the end of World War II. Make no mistake about it, richly nostalgic though it may be, there's high page-turning derring-do a-plenty as in all his books and perhaps particularly in this one. The action reads as heart-poundingly real, a long way from the wearisome hijinks of James Bond and his ilk.
In "Blood of Victory," Mr. Furst's protagonists are intelligent, sophisticated, world-weary men; men often as not without a country, exiles, like Ilya A. Serebin, a Russian emigre, who is as he describes himself "half Russian aristocrat, half Bolshevik-Jew. A dog of our times." He is ever on the run, now fleeing a Nazi-occupied Paris aboard a steamer headed for Istanbul with no country to which he can owe loyalty or find refuge for long, before he is engulfed in a mission that takes him through some of the more curious towns of the Balkans.
It is not then by chance in November 1940 in Istanbul that urbane spymaster Count Janos Polanyi recruits Serebin to join a mysterious underground organization. Mr. Furst, indulging in a little literary playfulness in the manner of Balzac and others, likes slipping in secondary characters from one earlier novel or another. In the case of the Hungarian count, he appeared as the uncle of the protagonist in Mr. Furst's immediately preceding novel "Kingdom of Shadows."
Only gradually does Serebin come to realize Polanyi is a kind of front man directed by the British secret service based in London. The long-range mission in which Serebin finds himself is nothing less than another desperate effort by the British to disrupt the exportation of Romanian oil, so essential to Adolf Hitler's armies and their sweep through Europe.
The British had made a first attempt to interfere with the exportation of Romanian oil to Germany in 1939 even as Western Europe was mobilizing for war. But with most of Europe already fallen to Hitler, Britain is facing imminent invasion unless something can be done. The stakes are high.
The title of the book incidentally comes a speech delivered in 1918 by a French senator at an international conference on petroleum. "Oil, the blood of the earth, has become, in time of war, the blood of victory." The struggle to cut Hitler's oil supplies rages through vividly evoked locales in the Balkans, from the elegant Athenee Palace in Bucharest to a sleazy whorehouse in Izmir in Turkey to river docks in Belgrade to the fogbound banks of the Danube where a small vessel laden with explosives is trying to run upstream.
Mr. Furst has the singular gift of making the reader feel that he must surely have experienced the harrowing exploits he is recounting. Consider even the fairly brief passage in a snowbound Bucharest at night when Antonescu's legionnaires are on a rampage shooting up anyone in their way. "The hatch on the top of the turret was flung open and a man with a submachine gun began to work the street, the flare of the barrel flickering on and off with each burst. The cannon shell had meant nothing, zooming away into an unlucky wall, but now the legionnaires were in trouble, and pinpricks of light sparkled from doorways. Serebin heard it, the air ripped like cloth above his head and he burrowed into the snow as a sliver of brick stung him on the neck and flew away."
In recreating these dark, perilous times, Mr. Furst casually drops in mention of actual historical personages with whom his characters interact such as Nestor Makhno and Isaac Babel. If you aren't familiar with the Ukrainian anarchist Makhno or the Russian author Babel, it doesn't make any real difference. If you are, however, you get a pleasurable little frisson of recognition.
"Blood of Victory" has of course a love affair, as touching and moving as say a French film of the Forties, like "Quai des Brumes." If you're too young to remember the period yourself and most readers will be I guarantee Alan Furst will give you a great wrench and send you back to those six earlier novels.

Cynthia Grenier writes The Mag Trade column for The Washington Times.

By Alan Furst
Random House, $24.95,237 pages.

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