Midnight in Europe

  • Alan Furst
  • Random House
  • 272 pp.

A lawyer turns arms dealer for the Spanish Republic as fascism gains power in 1930s Europe.

It is December 1937, and the Spanish Civil War has been grinding on for nearly a year and a half. In Manhattan, Spanish émigré and lawyer Cristián Ferrar is walking through the snow, thinking about love, and worrying, just a little, about the man who seems to be following him.

Alan Furst’s latest novel, Midnight in Europe, is a picturesque, sometimes thrilling, elaboration of that initial snowy scene. Ferrar returns to his home in exile, Paris, where he works for the international law firm Coudert Fréres. He eats quiet, occasionally lonely, bachelor dinners and mourns the Spanish Republic’s equally lonely, slow demise, which comes as the rest of Europe cringes in fear at the growing fascist powers. He asks himself, “What can be done? What should I do? Is it hopeless? So it seemed. The fascists were winning – they would rule Europe and tear it to pieces.”

And yet, there is something a charming Spanish lawyer in Paris can do. The Spanish Republic’s embassy asks Ferrar if he would assist in brokering arms deals for the struggling Republican Army, which is being strangled by an international nonintervention pact that deprives the republic of nearly all its allies but leaves Europe’s fascists to arm the rebel military. Ferrar eagerly agrees to help, and he soon joins forces with the resourceful Max de Lyon, a mysterious but dedicated arms-procurement expert.

Ferrar and de Lyon determine to do what they can for the republic, but dark, nebulous forces threaten their efforts. Ferrar’s predecessor in this work died in murky circumstances in Spain while apparently attempting to aid a lady in distress. And when the two partners embark on their first procurement attempt, they must travel to the heart of the beast, Berlin, where the arms deal proves more elusive, and dangerous, than either man had anticipated. De Lyon disappears, and Ferrar must use his quick wits and a dash of bravado to try to rescue him.

The novel proceeds in such episodes: weapons-purchasing sojourns interrupted by Ferrar’s tentative, and perhaps misguided, pursuit of a stunning, wronged marquesa. Furst writes with a delicate appreciation for details and atmosphere that gives the book the air of a classic noir film. When Ferrar takes his refined marquesa for hot chocolate, she is dressed “for afternoon tea in a pale lilac blouse, with a strand of pearls at her throat, and a suit colored dove gray which, he suspected, came from one of the better fashion houses.”

There is no single villain here; instead, Ferrar’s nemesis is fascism itself. The men opposing Ferrar and de Lyon’s purchasing runs are soldiers, railway clerks, and police officers. Furst only writes about the period from 1933 to 1942, when Europe’s fate was still uncertain and it looked like Germany, and fascism, might prevail. In such an uncertain environment, people had to make difficult moral choices. Could they wait Hitler out? Was it necessary to support the Spanish Republic? How much should one man, a handsome middle-aged lawyer, say, sacrifice?

The lack of an individual antagonist means Ferrar’s adventures feel episodic. Tension waxes and wanes quickly. But that is the eternal balancing act facing a historical novelist – the obligation of a storyteller versus the steady, often mundane, reality of history.

In this case, Furst seems to have erred on the side of history. Perhaps a bit too far for some readers, who might miss the agonizing, page-turning suspense generated by his previous thrillers, with heroes racing across Europe while loved ones suffer. But for those who appreciate a finely rendered atmosphere, a few nail-biting moments, and the anxious moral questions that era posed (and who might wonder what similar questions our time holds), this book is a delight.

Carrie
Callaghan’s short fiction has appeared in Silk Road, the MacGuffin, Weave
Magazine, and elsewhere. She is
a member of the editorial board of
the Washington Independent Review of Books. Twitter: @carriecallaghan.

 

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