When I was younger I was a voracious reader of spy fiction. I read everything written by authors like LeCarre, Deighton, Ludlum, and Granger just to name a few. But grad school and other things led me away from the genre to a certain extent.
Recently, however, I have been hearing rave reviews of the work of “historical espionage” writer Alan Furst. His work seemed too good to pass up so I picked up a copy of his most recent novel Dark Voyage. His excellent reputation is well deserved. Dark Voyage is a subtle, picturesque, yet suspenseful novel whose exotic yet humane characters breath life into a history almost forgotten. It is a thoroughly enjoyably read and one that is much more than simply a spy thriller.
Furst’s eighth novel centers around the dangerous activities of the merchant marine in the early days of World War II. The central character, Eric DeHaan, is captain of a Dutch freighter and “married to the sea.” Cut off from his homeland and family by German occupation he is recruited by Dutch, and eventually British, naval intelligence. In the early years of the war the Allies’s merchant marine fleets were suffering startling losses to German submarines and mines. DeHaan is recruited as part of an effort to reverse these losses. The captain is a man of steady action and resolve but he is still the prisoner of events in important ways. He finds solace in the life he has chosen, in the books he reads, and in the brief romantic interludes he is able to snatch from a life lived at sea.
DeHaan’s boat, originally the Noordendam but masquerading as the Santa Rosa, is the central setting. One of Furst’s talents is to describe life in and around a boat in such realistic and captivating terms. He communicates the rhythm and structure of sea life; and captures the people who choose this life. His language is spare yet descriptive; his characters are exotic but slightly out of focus; the story gains in suspense and action and yet never feels rushed or fake. Rather the action builds organically as events tumble on top of each other. DeHaan soon finds himself engaged in what seems like a fatalistic mission to the heavily mined and watched Baltic. The story’s climax puts the ship and crew’s survival in doubt.
The term “historical espionage” is an apt description of Furst’s work. Rather than creating an exotic world of globe trotting spies engaging in glamorous, and rather fantastic, activities he seems to recreate the almost mundane yet powerful actions of everyday people caught up in war. Dark Voyage reads like a slice of history rather than the plot for a movie. And to me, that is a high compliment.
For more check out this excellent Guardian review by M John Harrison and this Book Passage interview with Furst.