Alan 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.