MIDNIGHT IN EUROPE
By Alan Furst
Random House, $27, 251 pages
The year is 1938. Francisco Franco is in power in Spain. Adolf Hitler is in power in Germany and threatening all of Europe. War clouds, resistance, plots, counterplots, intrigue, sex and danger — enter an Alan Furst hero.
This time his name is Cristian Ferrar. “Midnight in Europe” is the peerless espionage novelist’s 13th foray into the murky world of Europe on the brink of World War II, and the latest in his “Night Soldiers” series.
It’s every bit as good as all 12 of its predecessors, which is saying a great deal. However, while you won’t find me comparing Mr. Furst to Eric Ambler, John Le Carre or Graham Greene, as some reviewers have done, I will say he is in a class by himself when it comes to combining story, characterization and setting. Open an Alan Furst novel, and you enter a sepia-colored world on the edge of madness.
Ferrar, a partner in the Paris office of the prestigious international law firm Coudert & Coudert, is a man of many parts, the first of which is loyalty to Spain, the country of his birth. By late 1937, he would have already joined the anti-Franco faction, but as the sole supporter of his parents and other family members, he could not enlist. Torn between patriotic duty and familial devotion, Ferrar is an easy catch for spy-master-of-sorts Max de Lyon, a former arms merchant now using his prior experience and his considerable — often extralegal — skills on behalf of the Royalist cause.
Ferrar, an in-for-a-peso, in-for-a-pound good guy, turns out to be the right man for the various arms smuggling jobs de Lyon entices him to undertake, almost all of which involve danger. Briefly married some years earlier, Ferrar is definitely an eligible bachelor, and despite his busy schedule, both professional and clandestine, he finds time for amour with several well-described ladies. Mr. Furst is as good as ever at painting what eventually takes place (without plunging off the cliff a la James Bond).
In this, as in all the “Night Soldier” books, the author evocatively re-creates the scene at hand — be it France or New York or Germany or Russia — of the late 1930s. In this book it’s all of the above. Several decades ago, Mr. Furst lived in Paris for 10 years, and his knowledge of and love for the City of Light is everywhere evident. That alone makes his novels worth reading.
The action involves de Lyon and Ferrar’s joint efforts to procure, by any means possible, ammunition for an anti-aircraft gun, a most precious and useful commodity. Their search leads them to a wide — and interesting — variety of characters and places, both high and low.
De Lyon strikes me as tied for most interesting character in the book with Ferrar, the protagonist. However, the Marquesa, more than a passing love interest for the Spanish emigre, holds center stage for quite a while. She has, you will not be surprised to learn, a complicated history herself. Mr. Furst loves intrigue — and physical danger — on trains, but in this case the denouement takes place on a cargo ship making the Odessa-to-Valencia run, which of course turns out to be very life-threatening.
Compared with the heroes of some of the author’s earlier books, Ferrar is less of an action figure, but that does not make him less interesting. Ever wonder what it would be like to be an international lawyer just as World War II was about to erupt? Read on and find out. While he makes no pretense at being a literary espionage novelist, Mr. Furst nonetheless has writerly skills. Consider this nicely descriptive, mood-setting paragraph:
“As February turned to March, the spring rains began to blow in from the west, and some of the chestnut trees at the Metro entrances started to bud, forced by the warm air drifting up from the stations below: 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 cafes, 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.”
At the book’s end, de Lyon and Ferrar are back in Paris, at a brasserie. As they both know, the war is imminent, but both will remain and fight. “They stayed at the table for some time, drinking Pernod. A cooling breeze sprang up as the long dusk gave way to darkness, and they smoked cigarettes and talked, until after midnight, the waiter came to their table and told them that the brasserie was shutting down for the night.” Life, as we so fortunately know, will go on.
John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.