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.

Alan Furst – Spies of the Balkans

Greece is the latest country to feature in the Crime Fiction on a Euro Pass challenge hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise. I’ve read a few books recently set in Greece, but my favourite by far was Alan Furst’s Spies of the Balkans.

Furst has created a niche for himself by writing thrillers set around the Second World War in the style of Eric Ambler and John Le Carre. Many of them are set in occupied Paris, but he has moved the narrative of his most recent book to Salonika in Greece. Salonika of the 1940s is a city influenced by the culture of the Ottomans to the East and the Balkans to the north.  Teetering on the brink of catastrophe, the defeated army of Mussolini have retreated but the German army is mobilising and the 50,000 Jewish citizens are beginning to fear for their safety.

The book’s hero is Costa Zannis, a special branch police officer, who has responsibility for the more delicate political assignments in the city. In the course of his work he becomes aware of an escape line operating to help Jews out of Germany, through Salonika and on to Istanbul. His assistance with the escape line brings him to the attention of the British intelligence and he is persuaded to help an English scientist escape from Paris. Although the action moves from Salonika to Paris and then onto Belgrade, the character and focus is firmly on Greece. The book is full of a wealth of detail about the city before its Jewish population was decimated by the Nazi invasion. The close relationship between the city and the neighbouring Istanbul is a surprise in light of ongoing tensions between Greece and Turkey but Furst convincingly portrays the loose allegiances that can develop in wartime. 

The character of Costa Zannis is very much along the model of many of Furst’s previous male spies but is nevertheless an interesting protagonist. The female characters are less developed which is a shame, given the important role they have in the plot’s development. Spies of the Balkans is Furst’s 12th book but in my opinion one of his best and a good place to start for those new to the writer.

On another note, I am actually writing this post in Greece. There is an oil refinery strike here at the moment and queues at petrol stations are getting tense. Has anyone ever written a thriller set in a petrol station I wonder?