Written by Alan Furst — World War II is yet to start, but fascist forces in Germany and Italy are making ominous declarations, and General Franco’s nationalist army is fighting a civil war with the Spanish Republic. The Republic maintains fragile control over Madrid and Barcelona, but they are starved of weapons and unless that changes they will surely lose. The fall of the government in Spain may have a domino effect, with fascism spreading through the continent. An embargo is enforced by countries such as France and the United Kingdom leaving only the USSR as allies, but Soviet supplies are haphazard and nearly obsolete. The nationalists are well supplied by their fascist allies and maintain air superiority thanks to the German Luftwaffe.
Christian Ferrar, a partner with an international law firm based in Paris, is approached by the Spanish embassy, where it is explained to him that it is the duty of all Spanish men of the professional classes to do whatever they can to help the republican cause, and that he has been selected to help in the technical office procuring arms. Ferrar is ready to help but when he doubts what he has to offer, it is pointed out to him that as an international lawyer whose work takes him around the world he has the perfect excuse for moving around and his legal knowledge will be priceless in finding ways of circumventing the embargo. Assisting him in this will be Max de Lyon, a small-time arms dealer with a Jewish-Russian background who now has a Swiss passport. Max is streetwise in a way Christian will never be, and knows how to deal with criminals as well as Christian knows how to deal with bureaucracy.
As the months pass they have some minor success, but in Spain the nationalists continue to secure important victories. The pair are asked to procure heavy artillery, especially anti-aircraft guns, something which is almost impossible to do, but republican success depends upon it. Their quest takes them through Europe, by land and by sea, from Berlin to an Istanbul brothel and to the Polish port of Gdansk. They work with Ukrainian gangsters, and are dogged at every step by the Gestapo and Italian navy.
The American author Alan Furst doesn’t deviate from the formula that has served him so well in his 12 previous books. That is to say a we have handsome man of noble spirit, capable but without experience as a spy, who risks his life in a globetrotting adventure to fight the encroaching forces of fascism whilst at the same time having an affair or three. That said, I know how a glass of champagne will taste before drinking it and that doesn’t spoil my enjoyment. As ever, the setting is thoroughly convincing, the detail impressive, and the atmosphere of doomed romance intoxicating. His writing is sophisticated, nuanced, and surprisingly funny in places, without ever being flashy. Furst is too skilled the storyteller to ever break the spell he casts over the reader for the sake of a clever phrase. No doubt Midnight in Europe will sell by the bucket load, and that’s just fine with me.
Weidenfeld & Nicolson
CFL Rating: 4 Stars