Midnight in Europe
Midnight in Europe is my first outing with Alan Furst and having read some of the book in a city which features prominently in the mise en scene, Berlin, it won’t be my last.
Furst’s immediate strengths as a writer is a precise and no nonsense prose: with the exception of descriptions of where people live and what they drink, his sentences are dramatically parsed.
His tableaux is Europe during the Spanish Civil War, the internecine polarity which ensues between Spaniards living at home and abroad, and – before the novel is half way spent – Furst brings you on a tour of New York, Paris, Berlin, Danzig and Barcelona.
Cristian Ferrar, a Spanish lawyer in Paris and a Don Juan between the sheets, puts his life and career on the line by helping a clandestine agency smuggle and supply weapons to the Republican forces under siege by Franco, abetted by Italian pilots in German planes who massacre defenceless civilians in Barcelona by the thousands. Think Picasso ‘s Guernica.
Furst paints a gripping portrait of those who wage a personal war against the tide of tyranny, such as Ferrar’s comrade in arms, Max de Lyon, eagerly sought by the Gestapo, and the erotically charged Marquesa Maria Cristina.
Furst, author of Mission to Paris and Spies of the Balkans, has a gifted ability to slowly unfold a matrix of plots and sub-plots, segueing interest with a forensically detailed description of an assortment of characters, major and minor, walk on and centre stage, but not for a moment does his attentive eye wane.
‘He was a big, handsome, square-jawed fellow with a thick moustache, and very much at ease – feet up on the desk, railway uniform jacket hung over the back of the chair revealing braces and a carefully ironed shirt.’
You get the picture. Midnight in Europe is a spy novel rooted in a continent on the eve of its self immolation: abience, naturally, is everything, and Furst nails it again and again. There is a brilliantly vivid portrait of, for example, Berlin in the countdown to Kristallnacht, a city mired in the claustrophobic terror of a police state.
Kristallnacht of course followed the shooting in Paris in November 1938 of the German diplomat Ernst vom Rath by a Polish-Jewish student, Herschel Grynszpan: so much about the atmospheric background to that incident permeates Midnight in Europe, and Furst distills the intricacies of history to embroider his fiction.
The Nazi shadow is slowly edging through out Europe, Germany is goose-stepping toward total war and it is only a matter of time before Paris is snared in Hitler’s web. The good spy novel is, in essence, a bricolage, but it takes a master to connect the dots, one such as Alan Furst