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Alan Furst: Midnight In Europe (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

Since the publication of Night Soldiers in 1988, Alan Furst has established himself as a uniquely appealing writer of espionage fiction, attracting not only those who know the genre, but also those who hold more literary sensibilities.

Like Le Carre, he imbues his thrillers with a compelling air of reality that convinces the reader of their authenticity. And while he has never written a conventional series, he employs a revolving cast of recurring characters through the years 1933-1945. This approach allows more constant readers to see the connections in his world, while giving those new to his works the opportunity to jump on board with relatively little need for baggage.

The focus of Midnight In Europe is the pre-war period, 1937-1938. Tension is rising in Europe. As the book opens, Spain is already involved in its own bloody civil war, events that have a deep resonance for our protagonist, Cristián Ferrar. Ferrar is a lawyer in Paris, but his family were originally from Spain. As an immigrant child in a new land, determined to fit in, he developed a skill for other languages and customs, becoming something of a polyglot. His sympathies in the Spanish war lie with those displaced by the fighting, but he has not taken action regarding his home country, instead focusing on his career.

Paris is his home now. He has a good life. A good future. But when he is offered the chance to assist in supplying weapons to the Republican forces by a clandestine agency, he is finally given the chance to offer some kind of help to his own people.

Our hero - who is, naturally, a chivalrous ladykiller - is assisted in his mission by the irrepressible Max De Lyon. De Lyon could easily be a shady but entertaining stereotype, walking the line between the worlds of the rich and the privileged and his other black market contacts. But Furst paints him with a deep and sometimes surprising sympathy and nobility that creates a truly empathetic creation.

Also central to their efforts is the beautiful, mysterious Marquessa Maria Cristina. Like De Lyon, she manages to avoid becoming a walking cliché, but Furst is less successful at allowing her a more surprising inner life. The nature of her secrets may be a little too obvious for those who know the genre well. If Midnight In Europe has a failing, it is that, in general, the female characters feel sketched too lightly, meaning that a scene at the book's climax feels just a little unearned, a little too Hollywood. This is Ferrar's story, but it would have been nice to see more depth in the women who pass through it.

But it's a minor complaint. On the whole, as with Furst's other works, this is a hugely intelligent reimagining of a familiar form. The clear-cut morality of a Bondian thriller is often hinted at before being discarded in favour of quieter and more interesting moral dilemmas. There are moments of melodrama, but Furst prefers to ask more subtle questions within a genre that can often settle for simple answers. His heroes are often reluctant, conflicted between their morality and their more personal desires.

The main reason to read Furst, however, is his pitch-perfect period detail. The author evokes time and place with effortless ease. As the book opens with Ferrar in New York, we feel the impermanent moment of a "romantic New York, a New York in a song on the radio" that lulls us into a false sense of security before plunging into the uncertainty and volatility of Europe during that same period. In Paris, we feel the café culture and slowly changing moods of the pre-war populace. When Ferrar enters Germany to meet his contacts with De Lyon, we feel the brutal and uncertain atmosphere of a country being overtaken by a dark and dangerous mood that springs from its tumultuous recent history.

Furst is one of the greatest practitioners of the spy thriller working today. If you've read him before, you'll already have bought the book. If not, you're about to discover a real pleasure.

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