Alan Furst’s “Midnight in Europe” has all the essential elements of a spy novel: an intrepid hero with an active love life, a femme fatale, arms smuggling, and political intrigue that spans from Paris to Gdasnk to Odessa. At the same time, the novel deviates in a number of ways.
The story occurs at the brink of World War II, but it doesn’t focus on the major players such as Germany or the United States or France. Instead it focuses on Spain, where Gen. Francisco Franco is gaining power against the Republican government at this point in history.
At the center of the story is Cristian Ferrar, a quintessential 1930s hero: intelligent, suave, with “deep green eyes and thick, black hair combed straight back.” Think Cary Grant in the Alfred Hitchcock film “Notorious.” And yet, he’s not your typical spy. He’s a Spanish émigré who lives in Paris and works as an attorney for a prestigious firm.
When a Spanish colonel asks him to secure weapons for the government to fight Franco, Ferrar agrees. Hitler supports Franco, and Ferrar is anti-fascist and anti-Hitler. He has found his cause. It’s the beginning of Ferrar’s adventure. Along the way, he meets a cast of colorful characters and he buddies up with Max de Lyon, an arms merchant.
Ferrar’s dangerous mission doesn’t stop him from romancing an American woman, a French woman, and a mysterious Marquesa. This is everything I expect from a spy novel. But again, it proves to be different for a number of reasons. It doesn’t have the relentless pace of a thriller; the real action takes place toward the end of the story. The hero sustains nary a scrape. He doesn’t experience any hardships.
Delightful and Surprising
By taking the path less traveled in this genre, Alan Furst delights and surprises the reader. He’s informative in equally surprising ways. Who knew that the prudish Hitler watched a nude ballet in Munich? It was all for his cause: to encourage nudism and stimulate the national libido, with the goal of breeding more Germans.
For film buffs out there, did you know that the surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel served as Spain’s director of propaganda? I certainly didn’t.
This is the first time I’ve read a book by Alan Furst. It’s not going to be the last time. If you’re in the mood for either a spy novel or a World War II historical novel, but don’t want the same old, same old, read this book.
Full Disclosure: Advanced review copy courtesy of Edelweiss and Random House.