At some point in the past ten or so years, I became something of a literary snob. It may have been when I put down Ender’s Game and said, Well, that’s enough sci-fi for you! Or maybe it was when I finished The Sum of All Fears, amazed and appalled that Tom Clancy could get away with such a brazen, openly acknowledged rip-off of Thomas Harris’s much-superior Black Sunday. Or maybe — well, you get the picture. I was burned-out on mass market fiction, and starting to enjoy more and more the richer characterizations and more realistic plotting of so-called literary fiction.
The problem is, of course, that literary fiction often lacks the zing of thrillers (it needn’t, of course — witness this year’s triumphant Atonement), and after a while you start to crave the racing pulse of an old-school page-turner. This urge is was what found me in the bookstore last Friday night, before a flight to California — I’m now halfway through Anthony Powell’s very enjoyable A Dance to the Music of Time, a droll stroll through the life of an upper-class Englishman, but it wasn’t going to keep my blood pumping for a six hour trip. I needed something like an old Le Carre, or a Ross MacDonald — a genre writer with real literary flair.
The perfect thing turned out to be Alan Furst’s Night Soldiers. Those coming late to the game, like me, are perhaps dimly aware of Furst’s prominence, lately, as the World War II spy thriller writer. He’s far too young to have any firsthand knowledge of the war, but he spent some of his early life in Paris, a city prominently featured in many of his novels, and he has clearly drank deeply from the well of mid-twentieth century fiction and autobiography. Hemingway, Orwell, Koestler, Solzhenitsyn, certainly, but also, I think, Sholokhov, Sartre, Babel, and other writers who lived through — or died in — Europe’s cataclysmic struggle with Communism and Fascism: Furst seems to have read them all, digested them and managed to put them back together in a very compelling manner.
Night Soldiers follows a young Bulgarian man, Khristo Stoianev, who is recruited by Soviet intelligence in 1934. By a stroke of good luck, Khristo takes to the NKVD’s training extremely well; his bad luck, though, is to be on hand just as the Stalinist purges get underway. The purges catch up to him in revolution-torn Spain, where he has been dispatched to infiltrate the Republican side. This first section of the novel is absolutely brilliant; Furst’s re-creation of Stalinist Moscow and Civil War-era Spain glitter with telling details, and the growing weight of suspicion, betrayal and counter-espionage press on the reader as on Khristo himself, forcing one ahead faster and faster with the novel.
Furst’s characters are also well-drawn, if rather familiar from the war and espionage novelists of years past: the world-weary Russian spymaster, drinking away his fear; the naive American drawn into a dark world beyond her ken; the jolly Eastern European emigre with a well-worn grudge and a secret plan for revenge. Furst falters somewhat in the later portions of the novel, after Khristo has fled Spain, languished in a Paris jail and joined up with the French Resistance in the struggle against the German Occupation. Here Furst seems to tread water a bit, in particular with the character of an American counterpart to Khristo, similarly drawn into the struggle almost by accident. Things pick up again toward the end, as a last mission draws Khristo — now in the service of the OSS — further east, back toward his home, across war-torn Europe.
I brought all sorts of magazines and journal articles along with me on the flight, in case I didn’t get into Night Soldiers. I needn’t have worried — I read almost continuously for six hours, and then stayed up a couple of nights to polish it off. On the way home, I devoured another very good Furst thriller, The World at Night, which follows the travails of a French filmmaker in the months following the German conquest of Paris. Both novels tell the sort of untellable stories that one can only imagine from the obituary pages, as the last survivors of those years silently pass away. And they tell those stories very well, combining genuine literary talent with a gift for drama and suspense — if the mainstream thriller moves to meet Furst halfway, airport bookstores will be a much better place.