Review: Alan Furst – Night Soldiers

I’ve set myself an unofficial challenge for 2012 which is to read all of Alan Furst’s books in the ‘Night Soldiers’ series in the correct order. I’m glad the challenge is unofficial becasue I’ve already cheated and read the first book.  I’ve read three or four of the series over the years, most recently Spies of the Balkans which I enjoyed immensely. Those of us who are fans of John Le Carré’s cold war thrillers, in particular those featuring the inimitable George Smiley, I think are struggling to find Le Carré’s successor. Of course Le Carré is still writing but as he has moved away from the 1960s/70s Cambridge circus setting his books have become less magical in my eyes. His last truly good book was the excellent Little Drummer Girl where the plot was daring and absorbing and his descriptions of the conflict in the Middle East so vividly portrayed. Of course, trying to compare Furst to Le Carré is a little unfair on both writers, not least because Furst is a contemporary author writing about the past. However, his thrillers are firmly set in the espionage genre and do share many of the characteristics of Le Carré. I was particularly struck by this when I read Night Soldiers.

In 1934 Bulgaria, Khristo Stoianev sees his brother kicked to death by a group of young Fascists. His anger and resentment over the killing makes Khristo ripe picking for the communist Antipin, who secretes him to Moscow where he is trained as an agent of the Soviet intelligence services. Excelling in his craft, Khristo quickly becomes aware of the turnover of agents as Stalin’s purges become more and more random. For his first major assignment he is sent to Spain, which is in the grip of civil war, to support the communist cause. When he is tipped off that he is about to become a victim of Stalin’s latest cleansing, he escapes to Paris and adopts a new identity. However as the Second World War reaches France, the Communists use the chaos and disorder in the capital to settle old scores and Khristo has to embark on another journey to save his life.

Alan Furst has worked as a journalist across Eastern Europe and Russian and his knowledge of the region shines through this book. His experience however, has also obviously been augmented by extensive period research and I found his descriptions of the minutiae of Russian intelligence fascinating.  The recruitment and training of Khristo is wonderful and here I think you get the links with Le Carré. This is the era that proved the training ground for Smiley’s adversary Karla, who himself is the survivor of Stalin’s purges. I thought it entirely believable the paranoia and competitiveness that this environment brings and also how an agent must suppress his patriotism and inner emotions to survive in such an environment.

The later parts of the book dealing with Khristo’s flight from the Stalin regime were also excellent and here we were more in traditional thriller territory. The network of Soviet agents have tentacles that reach every corner of Europe and I was reminded of the modern-day Russian espionage scandals that have occurred recently in the UK. As is usual in Furst’s books there is a love interest but here it is at the very fringes of the narrative. I found Furst’s descriptions of the sophisticated Western female protagonists slightly less convincing than those of the world-weary and sexually promiscuous Eastern girls that Khristo encounters. But I can see that in both Spain and France, girls from middle-class America found themselves in situations completely removed from their restricted upbringing and these characters are another factor in an already complicated ethnic mix.

Overall this book is a tale of a battle for survival from the opening pages, set to the background of an epic encounter between communists and fascists that has repercussions right to the present day. It is an excellent debut novel for Furst. It is extremely well written and with a weary charm that I think he has made his own. I’m looking forward to plunging into the next installment, entitled Dark Star. I might even be able to wait until 2012.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Ok this isn’t a book review but watching the new Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy adaptation gave me plenty to think about yesterday. The first thing to say is that I’m a huge fan of the book and an even greater admirer of the 1979 TV adaptation starring Alec Guiness. However, if I’m going to do the film any justice I think I’ll have to set aside any comparisons and discuss the film as it stands, given that adaptations rarely better their sources.

First the positives: Gary Oldman as George Smiley is excellent. He makes the part his own, relevant to both the period portrayed and to the 21st century viewer. I’m a huge fan of Oldman anyway, I had my doubts about his suitability as Smiley but I though his portrayal gave the essence of the character. There was some other good acting too, notably from Tom Hardy as Ricki Tarr and Toby Jones as Percy Alleline. I also liked the pace of the film – thoughtful and reflective. Getting the essence of what is a complicated plot in 2 hours 7 minutes is no mean feat and the director essentially stripped the book down to its key narratives.

But some things did jar. For a start, the setting didn’t feel like 1970s London. I’m afraid that I have to admit that I remember the 1970s and the outside locations, office and hotel settings and even the hairstyles didn’t seem real. I know I am in the minority here – the film has been widely praised for its 70s feel but it felt at times like a film set and not real life. The drabness of the Cold War era seemed to be lacking.

Some of the characters were poorly developed, most notably the ‘inner circle’  where for example Ciaran Hinds is given no opportunity to show off his acting skills as the disillusioned working class spy, Roy Bland. There were also some hiccups in the narrative. I didn’t care enough who the circus mole was and when he is eventually revealed (no spoilers here) it is in a casual fashion with only a slight sense of the cataclysmic repercussions it will have on the espionage world.

There have been some rave reviews of this film and it is nice to be treated to an intelligent thoughtful thriller. I have a feeling that we are likely to see more of Oldman as Smiley which will be no bad thing. And, hopefully the film will introduce a new generation of readers to the spy novels of Le Carre – I notice that the book is ranking #2 in thrillers on Amazon at the moment. However, the film didn’t quite do it for me in portraying the claustrophobia and paranoia of 1970s espionage.