Midnight in Europe

Midnight-in-Europe-220x327Alan Furst’s new novel enters new territory for me. Instead of focusing on Paris before and during World War II, in Midnight in Europe, Furst turns to the Spanish Civil War, a conflict I knew nothing at all about. The novel’s hero, Cristián Ferrar, left Spain with his family shortly before Franco’s Nationalists took over large parts of the country. Unable to return home but loyal to the Spanish Republican government, Ferrar has taken a job with an American law firm and resides in Paris. When a spy working for the Republican cause is arrested in December 1937, Ferrar is recruited to take his place, and so he becomes embroiled in the underground arms trade. The purchase and transport of weapons is a challenge when so many countries refuse to support Spain and when Germany is on the side of the Fascist rebels.

Furst’s novels, in my experience, are about atmosphere, rather than action. There are moments of terror for his spies, but those moments don’t make up the bulk of the story. Midnight in Europe has intense moments, including a heart-stopping firefight on a ship filled with explosives, but Ferrar’s work mostly includes meetings with potential helpers, which he fits in between meetings related to his work sorting out disputed wills and other legal matters. The suspense is as much about who he can trust or whether he can work a particular deal as it is about whether he’ll get out alive.

History makes it clear that however successful Ferrar is in these smaller missions, Spain will still fall, and that fact adds an element of melancholy to all Ferrar’s endeavors. Ferrar and his cohorts are trying to prevent a thing we know will happen. We know, also, that Hitler’s first steps beyond Germany are only the first steps. One of the fascinating things about this book is the way people and nations in the book deal with their fear of what’s coming. Although we have the benefit of hindsight in a way Furst’s characters don’t, the book doesn’t make them seem naive. They’re aware of the danger, although some governments fear Communism more than Fascism. They just don’t know how bad it could get. When Ferrar goes to New York and a colleague suggests that he look into buying an apartment for his family, he’s sure he won’t need it. But he’s smart enough to buy it. Hope for the best, plan for the worst seems like the right mentality.

If I could register one small complaint (and I can—it’s my blog), I would like to see more and more interesting women in Furst’s books—best of all would be women who don’t become lovers of the main character. The romance was the weak spot in The World at Night. It was much better handled in Mission to Paris because the woman had a life of her own. Here, the main woman we get to know brings a pleasing plot twist, but I didn’t find her convincing. She mostly is a plot point, rather than a person. And now that I think about it, I don’t want more women in Furst’s books. I just don’t want women who are there to fuel the main characters’ sexual fantasies. If a plot doesn’t need a woman, I’m fine not having one if this is how women are going to be depicted. This may just be part of the whole spy novel genre, but I’d like to see something different. Other than that, I like Furst’s books a lot.

Review copy obtained through Netgalley.

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11 Responses to Midnight in Europe

  1. Naomi says:

    I recently read Guernica by Dave Bowling, which was the first book I had read about the Spanish Civil War. This one sounds like it’s coming from a different angle. Guernica focused on the Basques region.

    • Teresa says:

      The small amount of this book that took place in Spain was in Madrid. It seems like there’s opportunity for lots of good fiction about the period.

  2. Alex says:

    I could do with a good novel to do with the Spanish Civil War. The last one I read was C J Sansom’s ‘Winter in Madrid’ which was really poorly structured. I’ve been meaning to read Furst so perhaps this might be the place to start – or would you suggest otherwise?

    • Teresa says:

      This is just the third of his books that I’ve read, but it’s as good a place to start as either of those. Some of the characters overlap in his books, but they’re minor ones, so you can start anywhere. Certainly if you’re interested in the Spanish Civil War, this is a good one to try.

  3. Given my recent penchant for spy/thriller/mysteries from this era, I feel I should give Furst a try. The only thing holding me back is that it is historical fiction not a contemporary account. I fear I would be just waiting for Furst to slip up with some phrase or detail that doesn’t seem accurate.

  4. The woman at the start of Spies in Warsaw also had that ‘hey I’m just here for the shower scene’ feel, now I come to think of it. But I thought his details were great and I would definitely read him again for his evocation of a proper old school spy novel.

    • Teresa says:

      I think the way women are depicted in his books has something to do with the noir style. It’s not enough to turn me off his books entirely because the atmosphere is so good, but I’d like more variety. (Mission to Paris is the best I’ve read, when it comes to women.)

  5. ravingreader says:

    What a coincidence! I rarely hear of other people reading about the Spanish Civil War, and strangely, I’ve just finished a read of Laurie Lee’s When I Walk Out One Midsummer Morning and there is this title in my blog feed. Funny how life is like that sometimes. Lee’s book is autobiographical from his early twenties when he traveled to Spain planning to work and busk with his instrument on the streets. The shadow of the mounting civil war hangs over the narrative, and it triggered me going off into the interwebs to learn more. Lee’s book was charming…

    • Teresa says:

      It’s funny how that happens, isn’t it? I would like to read some other books involving the Spanish Civil War, so I’ll look into Lee’s book.

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