It was novelist Alan Furst who taught me the meaning of “world war.’’ World War II to me previously meant epic battles such as the invasion of Normandy or the Battle of the Bulge. In his historical spy novels, from “Night Soldiers’’ to “The Polish Officer’’ to “The World at Night’’ to “Dark Voyage,’’ the writer considered a master of the atmospheric thriller charts the lives of ordinary and, sometimes, extraordinary people in Europe from 1933 to 1945 as they are overtaken by the tidal wave of war.
Furst’s characters would rather be doing many other things than fighting fascists — making love in the twilight hours, dining at their favorite brasserie, ambling around Paris. On the whole, most would even rather be in Philadelphia, but for the fact that their antifascist politics, consciences, and sense of justice won’t allow them.
Furst vividly re-creates an era that brought pain and consequence to nearly every civilian in every country, even those peripherally involved. This may be self-evident to the generation that was involved, but for those with no direct connection, there’s a startling truth inherent in the reality of world war. Going about your business was not an option.
And so it is with Furst’s newest novel, “Midnight in Europe.’’ Cristián Ferrar, a Spanish lawyer living in Paris, is drawn, with only slight reluctance, by his patriotism and hatred of fascism into helping the Spanish Republican government by procuring desperately needed arms and munitions.
Aided by a mysterious fixer named Max de Lyon, former arms dealer, holder of a Swiss passport, and émigré from a Mitteleuropa shtetl, the two hatch audacious plans and execute them with the requisite amount of chases, thrills, and close calls, without which no Furst novel would be complete. There is even the slow, hot seduction of a Nationalist femme fatale, complicated by heartache over the girl Ferrar left behind in the United States.
As in his other novels, Furst creates great tension between his protaganists’ personal imperatives and their missions. Ferrar’s extended family, émigrés from Spain many years before, live an idyllic life outside Paris. As the fascist shadow spreads across Europe, Ferrar knows this cannot last. He makes tentative plans to move them to New York, hoping that his clandestine work will not threaten their safety. It is an outcome that remains doubtful until the closing scenes.
It sounds like a recipe for a classic 1930s or ’40s B movie. But Furst’s novels are not “B’’s in any pejorative or reductive sense. His predecessors were the great works of intrigue from 70 or 80 years ago. There was Eric Ambler’s 1939 espionage novel, “A Coffin for Dimitrios,’’ and films such as King Vidor’s “Comrade X,’’ Hitchcock’s “Foreign Correspondent’’ and “The 39 Steps,’’ John Ford’s “The Long Voyage Home,’’ and Michael Curtiz’s “Casablanca.’’
They all share themes with Furst’s novels: the reluctant but idealistic hero; the beautiful woman whose love sustains and propels him; a goal or piece of intelligence that may have some influence on the course of the war (one thing I most appreciate about Furst’s plots is that quite often, as is probably the case in espionage, a great deal of effort and sacrifice comes to nothing); and all Nazis are venal, evil, sadistic, anti-Semitic bastards.
The heart of the Furst canon began with “Night Soldiers’’ and “Dark Star,’’ his big sweeping canvases of the era. They’re intricately plotted stories whose settings range from Eastern Europe to Moscow to the Civil War in Spain to the resistance in occupied France. While there is no set order to Furst’s novels, there are tantalizing intersections, coincidences, and surprising walk-ons by characters and objects.
In “Night Soldiers,’’ Khristo Stoianev, a Bulgarian on the run from Stalin’s secret police and working as a waiter in Paris, is witness to the tommy-gunning of all the mirrors in Heininger, a fin de siècle brasserie. The one surviving mirror shows up again and again in the other books.
In “Mission to Paris,’’ the actor Fredric Stahl passes by the offices of Jean Casson, the producer-hero of “Red Gold’’ and “The World at Night,’’ on his way to see his own producer. And, in “Midnight in Europe,’’ the fascinating (and familiar) Hungarian diplomat-spy Count Janos Polanyi takes a turn on stage, and the Tampico, Mexico-based Santa Rosa, a tramp merchant ship from “Dark Voyage,’’ once again stars in a pivotal role.
Admittedly, I know these details of Furst’s novels because I’ve read every one of them twice. Each time I get my hands on a new one, I devour it in a single sitting. I can’t help it; they’re just too much fun to put down. A couple months later, I’ll pick it up again and take my time. Like the choucroute garnie and dark beer at Heininger, it’s even more fun to savor every morsel.
Kent Black is an editor and writer who lives in New Mexico.