Midnight in Europe: A Novel
Random House, 2014
272 pp., $27.00
Midnight in Europe
Whenever I get word of a new book in a series I've been following for a long time, I feel impatient to read it—but also, in the background, there's a faint sense of uneasiness: Will there be a noticeable diminishment? Will the familiar characters and devices and settings seem stale? Will the author seem to be bored with the enterprise yet unwilling to let it go?
In 1988, with Night Soldiers, Alan Furst began a long-running series of historical espionage. The novels don't feature a single protagonist (though characters who appear in one book sometimes pop up in another). Paris is the home base, but the settings range widely: Italy and Germany; Central and Eastern Europe; Spain, Greece, Turkey; Russia; New York City. In time, the books are largely set in the late 1930s, sometimes extending into the '40s but most often focused on the period just before the formal beginning of World War II.
After the first two books, Night Soldiers and 1991's Dark Star, Furst recalibrated slightly. Those books were longer and a bit more densely textured than succeeding volumes, though the narrative voice hasn't changed fundamentally from the outset. His latest, Midnight in Europe, is the thirteenth in the series, and fans can rest easy: Furst's hand hasn't lost its cunning. As for new readers: you can easily plunge into this book without having read any of its predecessors (the series doesn't unfold in chronological sequence).
A word about the flavor of these books. A lot of spy fiction prides itself on a pervasive sense of world-weary disillusionment. Note that, while in one sense self-consciously "anti-romantic," these books are often quite romantic in their own way. (Are you, Reader, among the few willing to look into the dark heart of things?) By contrast, Furst gives us idealized but not impossibly heroic versions of ordinary people making moral choices. Romantic? Sentimental? OK, sure—as long as you acknowledge that those labels apply equally to John lé Carre.
Midnight in Europe begins in mid-December of 1937. The protagonist, Cristían Ferrar, is a lawyer at an American law firm in Paris whose family emigrated to France from Barcelona in 1909 after outbursts of political violence. Ferrar, who has recently turned forty, resembles many other Furst protagonists while possessing his own distinctive character. Handsome, charming, attractive to women (and attracted to them), Ferrar is a Catholic who supports his eccentric family and their hangers-on and attends mass with them weekly. Asked to (covertly) help the embattled Republican forces in Spain to acquire arms in their fight against Franco's Nationalists, he agrees—and enters for the first time the byzantine world of back-door arms dealers.
Far from evidencing a falling off, a waning of energy, Midnight in Europe is one of the most enjoyable installments in a deliciously enjoyable series. Furst combines a relish for quotidian pleasures—food, drink, friendship, and more—with an acute sense of the absurd (a rare combination), and the unabashedly romantic resolution to this particular tale will gladden many readers' hearts.
John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.
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