MORE

The Ideal Elegist

Illustration by Brooks Salzwedel

Thanks to Hollywood, we all carry a noir vision of 1930s Europe in our heads — rainy streets, upturned collars, glowing cigarette ends and spies, spies, spies. But readers of Alan Furst’s seven novels of “historical espionage,” of which Dark Voyage is the latest, carry something more: an increasingly precise, ever more minutely inflected sense of what it might have been like to live in Europe both before and during the cataclysmic war that almost destroyed it. If you’ve ever stared longingly at a vintage photograph by Brassai or Doisneau, or drooled over the re-creation of wartime Paris in an old Charles Boyer flick like Arch of Triumph, well, read Furst.

Which isn’t to say that Furst is primarily a nostalgist — he’s much too tough-minded for that. Nor does he share the typical thriller writer’s thirst for sensational stories and plots. Charles McCarry, a former CIA case officer and the dean of American spy novelists, once noted that in 10 years working undercover for the CIA he had never carried a gun. Much the same could be said of Furst’s protagonists, who rarely revert to force and whose espionage activities are plausibly modest in scale. In book after book, Furst has depicted the larger European drama through small personal narratives that have the quality of period memoirs. In Dark Star (1991), a novel that deserves a place next to Eric Ambler’s 1939 classic A Coffin for Dimitrios, he told the story of Andre Szara, a Russian-Jewish Pravda correspondent turned NKVD operative and spy master in Paris and Berlin. As Szara uses the “Red Orchestra” (the code name for the Soviets’ Parisian spy ring) to fight the Nazis while simultaneously sidestepping Stalin’s secret pogrom of Jews — “Of course Stalin cannot afford, politically, to estrange the Jews of the world, because we have so many friends among them,” a high-up apparatchik explains — the history and meaning of the Hitler-Stalin pact come into horrifying focus.

In The World at Night (1996) and Red Gold (1999), Furst recounted the Nazi occupation of France through the eyes of Jean Casson, a well-off, womanizing French film producer who plays a minor role in the resistance and learns to live as a hunted man in his own beloved Paris. As usual with Furst, it’s the small details that make the picture come alive:

 

Place Clichy. He sat at an outside table at a café and sipped the roast barley infusion the waiter brought him. Coffee, he thought, remembering it. Very expensive now, he didn’t have the money . . . He had an identity card, Marin, Jean Louis, and a ration book. Nothing more. It wasn’t a quality fake, he’d bought it from a taxi driver, one phone call and that was the end of him. Casson was wanted by the Gestapo . . .

 

Like Casson, Eric DeHaan, the Dutch hero

of Dark Voyage, is only a bit player in the war. But unlike its predecessors, Voyage is only partly a European novel, with much of it taking place at sea on the tramp freighter Noordendam (also known as the Santa Rosa, when necessary) and in the North African port city of Tangier.

The year is 1941, and DeHaan, the Noordendam’s 41-year-old captain, now in watery exile from his Nazi-occupied homeland, has just set foot on shore en route to a dinner with the owner of the Netherlands Hyperion shipping line, for which he works. Like all of Furst’s heroes, he’s a sensualist: Twenty-five years at sea, he thought, and too many ports. Fresh orange peel on the cobbled street, burning charcoal and — grilled kidney? He rather thought it was, nothing else quite smelled like that. Ancient drains, cumin, incense. And hashish, nothing else quite smelled like that. A scent encountered now and then aboard the Noordendam, but one mostly ignored it, as long as the men weren’t on watch.

 

DeHaan doesn’t know it, but he is about to join the Royal Dutch Navy, and the Noordendam about to be repainted, disguised and rechristened the Santa Rosa flying the flag of neutral Spain, although it has nothing to do with Spain whatsoever. In short, DeHaan and his polyglot crew, ranging from Ali the Egyptian radio man to Kolb the mysterious spy, are about to become part of a clandestine maritime war against Germany, carried out under cover of a commercial vessel innocently delivering everything from dates to cooking oil (with some 75-millimeter tank shells smuggled in between) to ports around the world. British intelligence provides them with all the support it can, but only until the job is done. Once it’s over, DeHaan and his crew will have to fend for themselves, and if they die in the process, you can be sure that no one in London is going to bother shedding a tear.

The narrative, which takes DeHaan’s ship from Crete to the northern reaches of the Baltic, proceeds at a leisurely pace — this is the kind of thriller that, counterintuitively, ought to be read slowly — taking time out for a nicely turned shipboard romance between DeHaan and a Russian journalist on the run from the NKVD. But eventually it does culminate in a convincing action scene in which guns are finally fired and things blow up. Ultimately, the overriding impression left by the book is a moral one. Just as it took tens of thousands of medieval craftsmen, many of them doing tiny, almost insignificant jobs, to construct a single Gothic cathedral, so the eventual defeat of Hitler was the work of countless forgotten men like the fictional DeHaan who risked their lives in myriad ways that eventually concluded in an Allied victory. You could say that Furst, in this and other books, has become their ideal elegist.

DARK VOYAGE | By ALAN FURST | Random House 272 pages | $25 hardcover