MIDNIGHT IN EUROPE, by Alan Furst. Random House, 251 pp., $27.
Good writers sometimes stake out one corner of the world and cultivate it for most or all of their careers: Flannery O'Connor's rural Georgia, John Cheever's Eastern suburbia and Michael Connelly's Los Angeles are examples.
Sag Harbor novelist Alan Furst, whose talent equals his ambition, set out in 1988 to portray the conflict between fascism and democratic forces across Europe before and during World War II. Great armies clash in the background of his novels, but his focus is on the espionage wars between Hitler's minions and those from many countries who risk it all to oppose them.
"Midnight in Europe," Furst's 13th historical spy novel, is set largely in Paris in 1938 as various partisans struggle to provide arms to the Spanish Republicans, who are near defeat by Gen. Francisco Franco's Nationalist army. Franco, of course, was receiving massive military assistance from Germany and Italy, while the United States and Britain refused to help Spain's elected government. As one character says bitterly, "Europe is a nice neighborhood with a mad dog. Just now the dog is biting Spain, and nobody else in the neighborhood wants to get bitten, so they look away."
Furst's protagonist is the Spanish-born lawyer Cristian Ferrar, who has lived in Paris since childhood. Asked by the Spanish Embassy to buy arms for the embattled Republican army, he plunges into a dangerous underworld of arms merchants, secret agents and criminals as he scours Europe for desperately needed guns and ammunition. His quest leads him into barroom brawls, the hijacking of a train and a gun battle at sea. To further dramatize the republic's plight, Furst shows us a small band of its soldiers, surrounded, down to 20 bullets per man and steeled to die fighting.
In all of Furst's novels, however, he offers a dimension above and apart from the killing. This author knows and loves Paris, and his hero, Ferrar, is a worldly man who also loves the city, and women as well. Early in the novel, on a business trip to New York, he romances a good-hearted librarian named Eileen. Back in Paris, he's captivated by the widowed and aristocratic Marquesa Maria Cristina, who is Spanish, 40ish and gorgeous.
The marquesa comes to his office on the Champs-Élysées for legal advice, and he is dazzled by her beauty: "She had strong, finely made features, smooth skin, and hair a dark shade of gold." However, she also appears to be "the most prim and proper lady in the land." Ferrar initiates a cautious courtship by taking her to Angelina's, the tearoom on the Rue de Rivoli famous for its Mont Blanc pastry and hot chocolate: "She scooped up a tiny spoonful and closed her lips on the spoon, resulting in the daintiest smear of crème de marron on her upper lip, a sight which she allowed him to enjoy for an instant before raising her napkin." That's delicious in more ways than one, and, as often happens, the prim and proper lady will surprise him.
Furst also contrives to send Ferrar and a colleague to Berlin in their quest for arms. In a bizarre twist, he has the two arms merchants present themselves to German authorities as the publishers of a nudist magazine. And why such an outlandish lie? Because -- this fact had escaped me all these years -- "in an effort to stimulate the national libido, and thus breed more Germans, nudity had been officially endorsed. Hitler himself, known to be a great prude in all things, had attended a nude ballet in Munich."
Less amusingly, Ferrar and his friend are confronted on the street by five drunken SS thugs who force them to give the Nazi salute and shout "Heil Hitler." After they escape the danger, his colleague predicts the thugs will kill some unwary tourist before the night ends. Leaving the horrors of Berlin, Ferrar knows that "evil" is the only word for what he had seen there -- and "it would not cure itself, as most of the world hoped."
In 2001, after devouring Furst's "Kingdom of Shadows," I urged readers to seek out all of this man's books. I'll repeat that advice today. If you know his remarkable body of work and savor the elegance of his prose, you'll need no encouragement. If not, "Midnight in Europe" is a good starting point. In today's spy fiction, he's simply the best.