Alan Furst and his series of “Night Soldiers” novels focus the European underground résistance against the Nazis between the years of (give or take) 1932 and 1945, and they have been an absolute pleasure to read and re-read since I discovered him back in 2012. One aspect I appreciate most about the series is that the main characters are not your typical British or American WWII hero archetypes—spies, soldiers, or otherwise. Furst gives us more of a grassroots perspective of Europe’s turmoil in that time. Some main characters are Polish army officers, newspaper reporters, Russian spies, Greek detectives, French film producers, etc. They’re people from all walks of life, and they all start out fearful of the Nazi regime and are unsure of what they can do against Hitler’s minions, but each finds a way to help, somehow. My rankings tend to shift depending on which one I’ve read last, but there’s really only one I disliked. The rest range from solid to incredible, and I hope this list inspires you to give the series a chance!
#14: Midnight in Europe
Midnight in Europe is the one book in the series I would warn people against reading. I’ve read worse books overall, but as far as the Night Soldiers series goes, this one felt like Alan Furst was going through the motions. It’s about a Spanish émigré lawyer, Christián Ferrar, living in New York and traveling to Paris where acquaintances convince him to help send money and weapons to leftist forces fighting against fascism in Spain, the prologue to the Nazi domination of Europe. Sounds intriguing, right? But it was a let down. The dialogue felt overly simple, and Furst uses it to explain otherwise obvious plot points repeatedly, as if we needed simplified guidance from A to B to C and so on. And there are a few sub-plots running throughout the book that feel aimless and don’t really go anywhere. So if you’re feeling brave, go ahead, but for readers new to Alan Furst, I implore you to start elsewhere. And if you read this one already and stopped, I encourage you to continue. He is so much better than this.
#13: A Hero of France
Midnight in Europe is the only one in the series I’d call “bad,” so welcome to safer waters. When I first read A Hero of France, it came on the heels of Midnight in Europe and felt like a welcomed return to form. Still, this one was less in-depth than his early espionage novels, although there's no lack of adventure, romance, intrigue, and those wonderful atmospheric passages that put you right there on the cobbled streets of Paris in 1941. I savored each chapter as slowly as I could, but it's a quick read. Unlike most of his other books, where we often meet the characters before they become spies for one agency or another in the fight against the Nazis, the characters in A Hero of France are “in medias res,” right in the thick of their work, already adept at their job. It's a slight change in his formula. On the downside, we get less time to see the characters develop, but a positive is that it helps us get right to the meat of the tale. The book did have some faults that are much more visible and prevalent in Midnight in Europe, mainly that there are instances of Furst reminding the reader too often of who is who and why this or that is important to remember. It got bad in Midnight, but it only cropped up a few times here. The book easily could have been twice as long with greater depth and detail, and we know he's capable of pulling it off, but if this is the type of novel Furst is going to offer at this stage in his career, slices of espionage rather than whole epics, I'm still game. This one deserves a read by new and old fans alike.
#12: The World at Night
You can’t really separate this one from the novel Red Gold, as they were released back to back and follow the same character, film producer-turned-spy Jean Casson. Casson is a bachelor living a high-society life of romance and comfort in a swanky part of Paris, even after the Germans occupy the great city of lights. That is until members of the British secret service use his idealism and national pride to convince Casson to put his contacts to work to help them, and eventually they ask much more of him. Casson doesn’t make the smoothest transfer to a life of espionage and his entry into that world goes off the rails in a bad way, so bad that he must attempt a desperate escape to leave France altogether. But just as he finds himself out of immediate danger, he gives it all up to finish the job he started, and return to the city and people he loves. Sounds great, but there are parts where the book feels less genuine than a lot of his other novels. Casson too easily falls into bed with beautiful women, some characters make stupid choices despite their training and know-how, and things feel just too convenient at times. During my first read I enjoyed the book, but during my second pass through the novel felt less compelling. However, when Casson returns in Red Gold, he is more focused and more experienced, and so the story takes a step up.
#11: The Foreign Correspondent
I hope you don’t take my ranking this one so low as a sign that the book isn’t good. It was really enjoyable, but there were elements that felt lacking. In The Foreign Correspondent we meet Carlo Weisz, an Italian reporter who escaped the fascists in Italy and now resides in Paris, where he works for a news agency and edits an anti-fascist publication called Liberazione in his spare time. He is constantly worried he might get kicked out of France and returned to Italy, or that Italian secret agents will come for him, as his writing has infuriated them. In his travels he encounters a wide range of disparate and fascinating figures, all quietly working against the rising tide of fascism, and as a result Weisz ends up agreeing to work with British Intelligence operatives. Weisz also works to help rescue a former lover, a German aristocrat in Berlin, who is focused on saving as many people as she can from the grip of the Gestapo, and who might become a victim of them as well if she isn’t careful. The ending felt a tad rushed, but the build-up is fantastic and atmospheric and as a writer and editor myself I found this character’s background wonderfully close to home. A fun one for sure, but not the best of Furst.
#10: Red Gold
In Red Gold, Alan Furst brings back Jean Casson and places him where he belongs, in Paris, but not the swanky Paris he is used to. Instead, we are skulking around in a dark, depressed city on edge, fearful of its German occupiers. Casson has joined a group of French officers working undercover inside the Vichy government to stall and sabotage the Nazis any way they can. He also works with his communist contacts who have their own plans to stop the Germans. Casson attempts to convince these different resistance groups to trust one another to keep the flow of money and weapons moving in the right direction—into the hands of those who would use them against the Nazis. This story feels more atmospheric and episodic than The World at Night, but it gives a seedier, more genuine feel for what life under German occupation must have been like, and it also shows how complicated and confounding it probably was to navigate the disparate resistance movements. Casson comes across as more dedicated and savvy in this one, and knowing his past, I enjoyed seeing his transition. It’s a half step up from The World at Night, and very enjoyable.
#9: The Polish Officer
The Polish Officer opens on an incredibly strong wave of action as German troops invade Poland and attack the small number of forces holding back the tide and holding on to Warsaw for as long as they can, allowing others to escape certain doom. In the last minutes of the defence, Captain Alexander de Milja is recruited to transport the Polish national gold reserve to Bucharest on a train full of escaping citizens. The train soon comes under attack, and de Milja and others make a daring escape, leaping from frying pan to fire and back again. I felt like the book slumped just a bit in the middle, jumping around to less interesting narratives now and then, but it picks up again as de Milja moves through one alias to another, always trying to stay one step ahead from the Gestapo officers hunting him down. We see de Milja and others navigating black-market alleys, dangerous tenements, and daring bomber raids. The mechanisms of war and espionage are in full swing in this one, with multiple characters struggling to stay afloat with their lives balancing on the edge of capture. Like many of Furst’s leading men, de Milja finds women flocking to him a little easier than he probably should. Sometimes Furst handles romance and sexual encounters well enough, but sometimes those scenes happen too easily, I guess you could say, or are awkwardly written. You get a little of both here, but by the end The Polish Officer finishes strong and comes through as a rewarding read.
#8: Kingdom of Shadows
I enjoyed this one slightly better after a second reading. At first the narrative and storyline felt a little too esoteric, too subtle, too episodic, and sometimes it was hard to follow the thread of what was happening, but it felt much strong after a second read a couple years later. Maybe I am just more used to his style now, his smoky, ethereal world of hotel and train stations, of bustling cafes and dank prisons, of back alleys and front parlors. Furst doesn’t always explain every step and transition, which can be a good thing if done well, and I certainly appreciated it better on a second go ‘round. I also enjoyed seeing Hungarian spymaster Count Janos Polanyi pop up in a larger role here (he appears in a handful of Night Soldier novels). This time, Polanyi slowly but surely brings his nephew Nicholas Morath into the fold, guiding him into the dark underworld of espionage and sending him off on one dangerous mission after another. But before too long Morath finds himself in over his head and is captured by Hungarian fascists. It’s a harrowing tale with plenty of adventure and intrigue, and a heavy dose of political backstabbing to boot. This book truly does live up to its title—the political spiderweb of Europe during the Nazi rise to power is certainly a kingdom of shadows.
#7 Spies of Warsaw
This was initially far higher on my list and I know many Furst fans consider it one of his best, and it’s certainly very good, good enough to be the basis of a film version starring David Tennant. I found the film version a little underwhelming, but the book felt nicely balanced and layered, full of espionage, romance, nighttime raids, political intrigue, all the good stuff. And even if the general rhythms of this book feel similar to his others, at least it's a rhythm that works: the first third developing the life of our hero, his loves and history, with a sprinkle of adventure and flashbacks to previous battles or spying, then the initial espionage objective comes into play, which twists and turns into a larger, more meaningful second mission, a tense sequence that takes up the last quarter, and then a very quick, high-view resolution, or sometimes our hero simply disappears into the mists of war as WWII explodes all around. In this one, a French military attaché named Colonel Jean-Francois Mercier is stationed in Warsaw and knows damn well the Germans are plotting something, but few believe him. Though we do, don’t we? And we’re right alongside him as he goes out of his way to gather proof, even if it means he must sneak right into the emerging front lines. It’s a damn good novel.
#6: Blood of Victory
This is another instance in which I enjoyed the book better during the second time around. It felt deeper, richer, and more fully formed after reading some of Furst’s lesser offerings. We begin on a freighter crossing the Black Sea in grim weather, and we and soon find ourselves in Istanbul, Budapest, Paris, and dark, dangerous places in between as Russian émigré and exiled writer I.A. Serebin attempts to help other exiles while avoiding explosions, assassination attempts, Gestapo agents, and Russian NKVD spies. Serebin is a man without a home who’s whole life is focused on keeping others safe, including the two women in his life—Tamara, the former and sometimes love of his life who suffering from a long illness in a remote house near Istanbul, and Marie-Galante, a brave and daring woman Serebin meets and falls in love with on his trip across the Black Sea. Serebin is eventually recruited to lead a mission to destroy Germany’s ability to ship oil up the Danube River, a mission that failed in previous attempts, but the new plan that dominates the final third of the book really keeps the reader on the edge of their seat. It’s quite the adventure and I enjoyed the relationships and romances in this book more than some of Furst’s others, so don’t miss this one.
#5: Mission to Paris
This one was in my top three for a long time, and though it slipped a few spots, I still love it, mainly 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 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. I could see his facial expressions and hear his voice. In Mission to Paris, Stahl agrees to return to Europe despite the possibility of war in order 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. When allied spy agencies see an opportunity to use Stahl as an agent 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, which he fears will damage his reputation and relationships. Even more, he fears the Nazis are on to him. This is one of Furst’s better works 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.
#4: Spies of the Balkans
I’m truly surprised this one doesn’t get more love than it does, especially for the opening sequence—rainy nights, shadowy figures, secretive phone calls, so much of that noir vibe pouring off the page! In Spies of the Balkans, Furst takes us to the coast of Greece and the city of Salonika, an ancient port where spies stalk the dark, rainy wharves and warehouses, where whispers of invasion are overheard in brothels and tavernas, and where Costa Zannis, a police detective with quiet but powerful political ties, watches over his city and its people, working to keep the darker forces at bay. But whispers of invasion become reality, and we witness Costa Zannis marching off to war where he survives bombings and desperate escapes all while maneuvering through a political and geographic no-man’s-land. I love his faithful dog, his police partner and secretary, and how Zannis honestly tries to maintain some normalcy in his life. But as usual, our hero falls in love with a beautiful woman (who is also caught up in a complex world of danger) while he hops from one ancient city to another, building a network of fellow resistance fighters to try to roll back the tide of Nazi forces. He has successes, he has failures, but he is always willing to try again and again, as long as it takes to win. This one is fantastic and full of those dark cobbles streets and quirky characters that make Alan Furst’s novels stand head and shoulder above most spy novels.
#3: Dark Star
I only read this one once and I cannot wait to visit it again someday, especially because the last third was such a race to the finish that I couldn't put it down, staying up hours later than I should have to keep the feeling alive. Yes, the plot gets a bit dense at points, and we feel a bit like the main character Andre Szara, who says, "Who is good? Who is bad? What does this mean? How in the world am I going to sift through all of this?" Szara is a survivor of Polish/Russian violence in his youth, who becomes a foreign correspondent and later an NKVD spy for Russia, managing their Paris branch. At times Szara is a rather unwilling spy, and at other times he becomes almost an anti-spy, if that's possible, pushing back against his domineering overseers. When I first read it, the book felt a bit overlong, bogging down in spots, but after reading some shorter novels I miss how in-depth this one was, and how we came to cling to Szara, who becomes a survivalist during one of the most harrowing times in history. Dark Star is deep and complex, little details always come around again, and events always mean something more than we thought later on. Just an excellent, well researched, well written novel. It’s also his second longest novel, similar in length to Night Soldiers.
#2: Night Soldiers
This is the first book in the “Night Soldiers” 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 it’s nearly just as good, but in my opinion Night Soldiers reigns supreme as the best Russian-focused spy novel that takes place in the WWII-era. Khristo Stoianev is a young man who witnesses a group of fascists murder his brother in a small town. He escapes that peasant life and is recruited to join the NKVD, the Russian spy network, where he receives the best spy and survivalist training one could possibly imagine, and he needs every bit of it 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, and how each can be as cruel and desperate as the other. It’s easily one of the best spy novels ever written, and maybe the best of the Night Soldiers series, yet it’s not my favorite Furst novel.
#1: Dark Voyage
I love love love this novel. Maybe because it’s the one I read first, or maybe it's because the story is so different from Furst’s others. Instead of Paris alleyways, Berlin hotel rooms, Polish train cars, or Hungarian cafes, the main action takes place on a Dutch freight ship always trying to stay one step ahead of German war planes, u-boats, spies, and patrol ships. The captain, DeHaan, is daring and dashing, but also stoic and smart, and his crew gets 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, and the ship becomes a symbol of the allied powers facing Nazi Germany because the crew consists of 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 any reader happy. Most of all, this just felt like a fun novel. While Furst’s other books 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.