Night Soldiers by Alan Furst (Random House Paperback 2002)
I discovered the Long Island-domiciled writer Alan Furst two years ago, and am spreading out the pleasure of reading his classy fiction of espionage and intrigue by picking up one novel a year. (If he continues his practice of publishing one every two years, I shall run out in about 2010.) Furst stages all his thrillers in Europe, in that twilight world between Hitler’s rise in 1933 and the conclusion of World War II in 1945. The leading characters are men and women who are drawn into the struggles between the dark forces of Nazism and Stalinism, and the compromise of alliances that defined the Second World War, but who have that extra spark of character and independence that inspires them to search for the more human and more enduring aspects of life. Furst sets his plots against a rigorously researched historical background, and has a touch for period detail that is almost always utterly convincing.
Night Soldiers appeared in 1988. The first two-thirds of it are gripping: the plot is tight and well-structured, the characters are crisply delineated and developed. The hero, a Bulgarian called Khristo Stoianev, is recruited by the Soviet secret service in 1934 after fascists kill his brother. Stoianev’s training in a terror-bound Moscow is described: among all the fear of duplicity and treachery, he makes a pact with another recruit that will allow them to recognize each other in later years. As a test of his commitment, he is taken to a prison cell to shoot a suspected German spy – who turns out to be his lover. The action then moves to Spain, where Stoianev is part of a cadre of “volunteers” helping the Republicans in the Civil War. But the Soviets are suspicious of operatives exposed to the West: Stoianev escapes to Paris, on a tip, just before he is to be recalled for probable execution. In Paris, he becomes involved with an exile Bulgarian group that murders a Soviet official involved in gold-dealings. Betrayed, he is incarcerated in 1937.
Here the book loses some of its rhythm. A sub-plot involving a US agent parachuted into France takes over, while the author (having spent two-hundred-and-fifty pages on the first four years of our hero’s exploits) has to pad out seven years of his life in a few pages. Stoianev languishes for over two years in jail before the advance of the Germans in 1940 provokes a freeing of potential French allies, and then has an unconvincing interlude in the Vosges mountains before joining the resistance against the Germans. Here the action heats up again, with an escape to Switzerland, and then Czechoslovakia, before a final mission to link up with his old colleague in Romania. But Stoianev’s character does not develop any further, and the reader’s interest in him might wane.
Despite its flaws as his first major novel, Night Soldiers shows all the characteristics that Furst has been able to refine in later works. The writing is taut – you cannot skip any line, as you may miss a key reference, or the significance of an apparently trivial incident. The verisimilitude is extraordinary: Furst reproduces the ominous atmosphere of Stalin’s Moscow as crisply as the gaiety of Paris’s cosmopolitan night-life. Overall, the historical events are introduced seamlessly into the narrative, and give the plot added conviction, although Furst overdoes it a bit towards the end. And, while his style is versatile, one passage failed completely to convince me – the conversation between two rather louche British agents sounded more like P.G. Wodehouse than the Evelyn Waugh-style interchange intended.
Furst is probably not as well-known as he should be. He follows a strong tradition of spy thrillers, but, in my opinion, is psychologically deeper than Ambler, more muscular than Greene, more worldly than le Carré, and, in his historical sweep, richer than all three. Night Soldiers may be a little too rambling an initiation to this accomplished author, but I encourage you to give him a try.