I recently read something that referred to Alan Furst as an anti-fascist writer. This is certainly true, but too narrow a description. In fact, this first novel of the Night Soldiers series is much more about Stalinism than Fascism. I think it’s more accurate to say that Alan Furst writes about the struggle of individuals to find some happiness in the maws of faceless, violent police states.
I gave Alan Furst’s most recent novel a fairly poor review. After reading that I decided to go back and re-read the first novel in the Night Soldiers series to remind myself why I am such a fan. I was not disappointed. believe Alan Furst wrote four novels before he hit on Night Soldiers with limited success. It is fortunate for the reading world that he didn’t give up.
Night Soldiers spans from 1934 to 1945 and from Bulgaria in the east to the United States in the west. It is largely about people caught within the spider web that was life for any Soviet citizen with any official status during the reign of Stalin. I think Alan Furst does a couple of things extremely well. First, he sets a great scene geographically. Wherever the characters find themselves their surroundings are vivid and clear. Even more important is how he captures the looking glass world of a Soviet intelligence official under Stalin. Denunciation and condemnation was more a matter of when than if. No one could be trusted. The logic was Byzantine and changed randomly and without warning. People living under that system generally ended up being reduced to a universe of one, trying to keep some inner part of their minds free from the apparatchiks trying to root them out, an almost incomprehensibly lonely place to be.
The story follows one of these people, Khristo Stoianev, a young Bulgarian who watches his brother beaten to death by Fascists. Khristo is seduced away to the Soviet Union and finds that he has an aptitude for the spy business. The novel for the most part follows Khristo through the Spanish Civil War, pre WWII France, and then the Second World War. I won’t tell you how things work out for Khristo. My advice is to get a copy and find out for yourself.
I felt kind of bad writing the poor review of Midnight in Europe because I am such an Alan Furst fan. I enjoyed re-reading Night Soldiers so much that I’m going to start working my way through the rest of the series again. One of the nice things about the series is that you run into the same characters in very different places, so if you decide to pick it up I recommend starting with Night Soldiers and reading them in order. You’ll enjoy them either way but reading them in order is a little more satisfying.
I’ve always been a big fan of the movie, but I’m not sure I’ve ever read the book before. I’m also a big fan of Dashiell Hammett, The Thin Man, both the book and movie, and The Continental Op series. I have to confess though, that The Maltese Falcon was something of a disappointment.
The really interesting thing is that some of the book is very good, while other parts read like a parody of a noir novel. It seems to me that the weak parts were the ones describing Sam Spade in action, fighting, etc. I also didn’t like the descriptions of Sam Spade much. The general narration, dialogue, other characters, etc. were up to the Hammett standard.
If you’ve read other Dashiell Hammett novels, or if you’re a fan of the movie, you’re likely to be somewhat disappointed by the novel. It’s worth picking up on Kindle and giving it a read though.
I am a big Alan Furst fan. He writes about an interesting place and time and generally comes up with a pretty interesting cast of characters who often find themself in pretty tough positions. Occasionally his books seem to meander to an end without anything being resolved, but given that is how real life works I’ve never been bothered by that.
I bought this book as a gift for my wife, who is also an Alan Furst fan. I picked it up and noticed she’d started reading it and set it aside. She couldn’t remember why, so I read it myself.
By the end of the first twenty pages or so I had a pretty good idea why she’d set down. I kept going. It wasn’t exactly a chore, the prose was good, as always. I finished it relatively quickly, it isn’t that long, and when I set it down I told her what I have to tell you, I can’t really recommend it.
As I said, the prose is good, but that is all I can really say positive about it. The setting is Paris, where many of Furst’s novels are set, but this one seems to be missing the atmosphere that his other novels have. The main character, a successful lawyer, is dull. He gets involved with the Spanish Civil War, steals a train in Poland, and is shot at by an Italian patrol boat, but never seems to be in any real danger. Nothing much happens to him and there’s almost a complete lack of dramatic tension.
I have an almost complete set of Alan Furst’s novels, and have read many of them multiple times. I doubt I’ll be reading this one again though. He is one of my favorite writers, but I think he phoned this one in.