Saturday, October 26, 2013

Dark Star: Alan Furst


Dark Star (1991) by Alan Furst tells the story of a journalist who is forced into being a spy and turns into a very good one, although he doesn't really enjoy it. The journalist is a Russian Jew, and the year is 1937. The story moves slowly, but in the end several events and plot threads that seem disconnected and haphazard all come together.

That is my very simplistic summary of the book. This book is the second in the group of historical espionage novels that are often referred to as the Night Soldiers series. I read the first book, Night Soldiers, several years ago and liked it well enough to look for and buy all of the remaining books.

But yet I have a hard time describing why I really like this book. Partly it is just because I like reading about this period. Partly it is because I love espionage fiction. Espionage novels often tend to be slower than other mystery fiction and I don't find that a problem. And Furst tells the story so well, blending in historical background in an unobtrusive way. The story continues into late 1940, after Paris has fallen.

The main character, Andre Szara, is very well developed. He is a real person, capable but no hero. Szara is part of a large network of spies and works from Paris, France most of the time; the network is so complex Furst provides a chart, which was useful to me. The only secondary character I found memorable was Joseph de Montfried, an enormously wealthy and titled French Jew. The story of his involvement with Szara's work was my favorite part of the book.

My edition of Dark Star had a reader's guide with questions. One point the guide made is that Furst's books often feature love affairs, and the effects of war upon them. I liked that aspect in this book, although it does not overwhelm the story at all.

At Alan Furst's author site, the series of books is described:
The novels—really one very long book with, to date, twelve chapters—are Night Soldiers (Houghton Mifflin, 1988); Dark Star (Houghton Mifflin, 1991); The Polish Officer (Random House,1995); The World At Night (Random House, 1996); Red Gold (Random House, 1999); Kingdom of Shadows (Random House, 2000); Blood of Victory (Random House, 2002); Dark Voyage (Random House, 2004); The Foreign Correspondent (Random House, 2006); The Spies of Warsaw (Random House, 2008); Spies of the Balkans (Random House, 2010); and Mission to Paris (Random House, 2012). Kingdom of Shadows was the first of these books to appear on the New York Times bestseller list; the subsequent books appeared there as well.
The books do not follow one character. There are two books that feature film producer Jean Casson, starting with The World at Night, and some characters show up in more than one book, but otherwise the connection between books appears to be the time (the years leading up to and including World War II), the setting (Europe), and espionage. I think each can be read as a stand-alone, but I plan to read them in order. I may read The Spies of Warsaw out of order if I decide I want to see the television adaptation of that series.

Please see this post at DerekCrowe.com, which has excerpts from several reviews that describe the strength of the book without revealing too much of the plot. That site has a lot of information about Polish history.

I am submitting this review for the R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril VIII event, hosted by Stainless Steel Droppings. That event celebrates reading of books of mystery, suspense, and horror. The event continues through October 31, 2013. Reviews for that event are here.

20 comments:

  1. Tracy, I have only read the one Furst, his Mission to Paris earlier this year and it was fantastic. I intend to read more from Furst at some point. I'm with you regarding espionage books, I like how authors fuse history and events into the narrative.

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    1. Col, I hope to be reading a lot more espionage books in 2014. Including more Furst.

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  2. Great review Tracy, but spy stories have proved not to be my cup of tea. One day, maybe.

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    1. Thanks, Puzzle Doctor. I understand that espionage stories are not enjoyable to everyone. And often they don't even have a mystery to be solved. So some readers don't even lump them in the crime fiction category.

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  3. I read the one by him called The World At Night, quite some time ago. I don't remember much about it, but I think I liked it... I too like this period, and a certain kind of spy novel, so I should take a look. Good review Tracy.

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    1. Thanks, Moira. I hope you do give another one of his books a try. I would like to see what you think of them.

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  4. Tracy - An excellent review, for which thanks. I really enjoy reading about this historical period, too. And you're right about espionage stories and their pace. They do sometimes build slowly, but when it's done well, the pace works.

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    1. Margot, I want to learn more about World War II and the build up to the war. But that covers so much, sometimes it is overwhelming. Novels like this help me place the events of the war.

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  5. Love a good spy story TracyK, thanks - got given one of his books at Christmas but haven;t read it yet, the length and small typeface has me daunted slightly ...

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    1. Sergio, I do think you would like his writing and would love to hear what you think when you try it. I do know what you mean about length and typeface. One of the problems of old age.... which you are not near to.

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  6. TracyK: I have read a few of Furst's books and enjoyed them. I have one to be read. I like this his books involve the smaller nations on Europe in the espionage. I appreciate that for these countries there were sometimes no good solutions as they were caught between the machinations of the Great Powers of the time.

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    1. Bill, you have touched on one of the things I like about his books too. Covering several nations in the same book. In this one, Russia, Poland, Germany, and France.

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  7. I didn't realize they were all part of a series. I've read The Spies of Warsaw but none of the others. I'll have to see which of those I own (snagged from library sales) and read them in order.

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    1. Anna, I don't know if it really matters reading these in order. But since I have them all .... I might as well. I am not very good at picking up historical details at the same time as following a plot, but this one did cover a lot of ground that I was hazy about. So they are a great series for me.

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  8. Great. Your review has made me move my Furst titles to my reading list. I bought two of his books to read and I am very much looking forward to reading them.

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    1. I hope you like them, Keishon. I love reading about espionage and this time period, so perfect for me.

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    2. I love espionage too and anything set during or after the Cold War. Have you read Philip Kerr yet? I have his Berlin Trilogy in my virtual library. I think his work is more Cold War? Not sure.

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    3. Keishon, yes I have read Philip Kerr... and liked the books. I have read the Berlin Trilogy plus the next two books in the series. As I remember them, some are set in the years leading up to the war, some after the war....1945 -1950's? I have the next four in the series to read.

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  9. I have read all of Alan Furst's books and it is wrong to label them spy stories, although spying plays a large part in the various stories. I guarantee you will discover more about pre World War II Europe and Europe during wartime than you will in any dreary history book. You will learn about many European and Middle Eastern cities and the surrounding countryside. You will also learn about love, hate, evil, passion, betrayal and almost every human emotion you can name. Furst's books reek with atmosphere, from steam filled railway stations and dark forbidding docklands to superb restaurants and seedy bars. His characters are always fascinating. As you can see, I am a fan.

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    1. Gramlynch, you are right that the historical elements are very important in these books, and I did learn so much from this book. A big reason why I want to continue reading his books. But one of my favorite genres is spy fiction, and that is what drew me to them in the first place.

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