A few years ago I discovered the espionage/noir masterpiece that is Alan Furst’s body of work, and I’ve been hooked ever since. The series is called his Night Soldiers series, which includes thirteen novels about the European underground résistance against the Nazis between the years 1932-1945, or thereabouts. Some books focus on Polish army officers, some newspaper reporters, some Russian spies, some Greek detectives, people from all walks, and they all start out fearful of the Germans and unsure of what they can do to stop the rise of Hitler’s mad power, but they each find a way to help, somehow, and I love that the POV isn’t of the usual British or American heroism during the war (which is all fine and good, but it’s nice having this change of pace). Here are my top three selections if I were to recommend his series to you, and I do, very much so!
#3: Mission to Paris
This one wouldn’t make the top three if it wasn’t for the main character, Frederic Stahl, and how he reminds me so much of the real-life Austrian-born film star Paul Henreid. I’m a fan of Henreid’s work, including his most noted role as the résistance fighter evading the Nazis in the film Casablanca, so it was fun imagining the Hollywood actor as the lead here too. In Mission to Paris, Stahl agrees to make a film in France, but because of his Austrian birth, the Nazis would like him to give their cause some good publicity, both in Europe and in America. Stahl, however, despises the Nazis. He rebuffs them, gently at first, but when other agencies see an opportunity to use Stahl as a spy against the Nazi regime, Stahl agrees to go into the lion’s den and tour Nazi Germany, reporting back what he sees, helping the underground and the spy network however he can. But on the outside, he begins to look like a true Nazi supporter, and the risks he runs become more and more dangerous, both to his reputation and his life. It probably falls somewhere in the middle of Furst’s list of best works if not for the fine job he does of creating a very convincing and unique circumstance of a Hollywood star caught between his hatred for the Nazis and his desire to help the underground by looking like he’s pro-Nazi. A fun and intriguing novel.
#2: Night Soldiers
This is the first book in this series, and it is by far the most intricate, detailed, and well researched of the bunch. The second book in the series, Dark Star, follows many similar points and themes, and is just as good, but Night Soldiers still reigns supreme as the best Russian spy novel that takes place in the WWII-era, in my opinion. Khristo Stoianev is a young man who witnesses a group of fascists murdering his brother. He escapes and is recruited to join the NKVD, the Russian spy network, where he receives the best spy and survivalist training one could possibly imagine for the long series of missions that will follow, each one testing Khristo’s resolve, loyalty, grit, constitution, intelligence, heart, and desire to avenge his brother and stop the fascist powers of Europe, while also evading those in his own organization who would see him just as dead as the Nazis would. It’s a fascinating look at the war between Nazi Germany and Communist Russia before the war itself even breaks out. It’s easily one of the best spy novels ever written. And yet it’s not even my favorite Furst novel.
#1: Dark Voyage
This is my favorite Alan Furst novel, period. Maybe because it's so different from his others in that instead of alleyways, hotel rooms, train cars, and secret cafes, the main action takes place on a Dutch freight ship pulled into the war first under the guise of espionage and later by direct conflict and combat. Rather than a single man against the world, this book has more of an "Us versus Them" feel to it, with the ship a symbol of the allied powers facing Nazi Germany, including Polish engineers, Dutch sailors, Spanish, Greek, French, and German seamen, a radioman from Egypt, a Jewish doctor, secreted passengers from Russia and beyond, all doing their part aboard the ship (and sometimes in missions on shore) to fight the Nazis. I love how so many characters are given special little spotlights throughout. This book is almost more “nautical adventure during WWII” than it is espionage, but there’s enough of each genre to keep a reader happy. Most of all, this just felt like a fun novel. While Furst’s others have the potential to fall into melancholy, despair, and loneliness, there is such an eclectic mix of adventure, action, romance, suspicion, humor, and mystery with this crew that the pages kept turning. It’s one I know I’ll read a few more times in my lifetime, if I’m lucky, and I hope you will too.
Note of Warning: His latest, Midnight in Europe, might be his least notable book in the series, and is the only one I wouldn’t recommend. It’s the book of an author going through the motions. The dialogue feels overly simple, and Furst uses it to explain otherwise obvious plot points, as if we were dense readers who needed simplified guidance from A to B to C. Plot points are repeated throughout, even though the plot isn't so intricate that anyone will get lost. There are a few sub-plots running throughout the book that feel aimless, and overall I ended the book feeling like it was over nearly before it began. So, yeah, don’t start with this one. Or end with this one either. Try the other three above.