It's the setting and atmosphere that are so compelling in Alan Furst's espionage novels of the years before and during World War II. In this novel there is just enough character and plot to keep you on tender-hooks as Cristian Ferrar and his partners arrange clandestine arms shipments to the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War.
Europe in 1938: on the verge of World War II. Already the civil war in Spain lurches on as a prelude of the destruction to follow. The Royalists under Franco are lavishly propped up by his fellow fascists, Mussolini and Hitler who is fighting his proxy war in the Iberian peninsula. The Republicans, on the other hand, are short of everything: materiel, weapons, ammunition, infantry. Hopelessly outnumbered, their doom is inevitable.
Europe is about those last spasm of effort that go into the propping up of those Republican forces. The armaments being smuggled out of Russia. The Parisian functionary hard a work in an attempt to smuggle guns into Spain.
The novel is well written but I did find it difficult, at first, to find my bearings in Furst's novel. Persevere.
An okay read, but better than his last novel MISSION TO PARIS.
Three Stars ***
Less an espionage thriller and more of a procurement procedural, Furst's latest in the "Night Soldiers" series is downhill even from "Mission to Paris," which I felt was already a marked decline from his earlier novels.
In "Midnight in Europe" we focus on Cristián Ferrar, a Spanish lawyer living in Paris, who becomes involved in an effort to smuggle arms and ammunition to the republicans in his home country. There is very little tension as Ferrar rather openly pursues his aims, announcing his mission to virtually everyone he come into contact with. The only real tension occurs near the end in a marine encounter that feels tacked on.
The novel gets off to a good start with a sort of "cold open" involving a courier named Castillo who is questioned and ultimately executed by sinister Spanish Nationalists. It's only a few pages long, but it's a well-crafted set-piece that nicely introduces the conditions in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. We never experience those (or any) terrifying conditions again.
Furst's novels focus on the Everyman spy - the reluctant do-gooder who is persuaded to take extraordinary risks on matters of principle, justice, and patriotism. This really only works when the protagonist actually has to make sacrifices. Ferrar is barely inconvenienced by his covert work and never directly faces any real danger. He operates from Paris in comparative safety and comfort. He has meetings at night clubs, openly travels throughout Europe, visits his family, has an affair with a Marquesa, conducts business while horseback riding, flies to New York and buys an apartment for his relatives to escape to, and dines at the Brasserie Heininger, the location of Furst's favorite leitmotif - a bullet-hole-ridden mirror above Table #14. All in all, Ferrar seems to be having a pretty swell time while conducting an illegal arms deal more-or-less in his spare time.
With nothing really at stake, it's hard to care whether the arms-running plot succeeds - and even if it does, we all know how the Spanish Civil War plays out. What we really need in these kinds of novels is for the protagonist to undergo some kind of personal transformation or overcome some kind of inner war for which the events unfolding in Europe are merely the backdrop and/or a metaphor. Sadly, Ferrar has no personal arc, struggles with no inner conflict, and experiences no growth. What appears to be a story about a man trying to get a big gun from Russia to Spain turns out to be just a story about getting a big gun from Russia to Spain.
Pretty typical Alan Furst novel--his formula is pre-WWII Europe, espionage, some sex, and the good guys win the moment. I'm a fan of his work, so I read it. You should have a interest in European history; and know something about the Balkans. A good fairly quick read, he has his base, as I have said, and they will read it. Check out earlier works, to get and idea if you like his stuff.
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