It is December 1937, and things are looking grim for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. Air power has been deployed against unarmed civilians in Guernica; the Vatican has recognized Franco’s regime; Messerschmitts supplied by Hitler are divebombing Republican troops with fierce regularity. The Republican Armed Forces are desperately short of munitions, particularly anti-aircraft guns. Britain and France won’t sell them armaments — they led a 27-nation embargo on selling weapons to Spain, and the United States unofficially followed suit. Italy is already under fascist control and so allied with Franco. The Soviets are the Republicans’ only hope, but Stalin, their most significant ally, is no longer willing to deplete his own stockpile by selling them arms. He knows he is going to need them.
Cristián Ferrar, a senior partner for the law firm Coudert Frères, works in New York and Paris and lives a comfortable life far from the carnage in his native Spain. In the firm he is known as a resourceful problem solver, an international negotiator not unfamiliar with the sketchier side of the law, anti-fascist in his sympathies but on the sidelines of the current conflict. He is, in short, an ideal, if reluctant, recruit to replace an intelligence officer murdered in an attempt to get weapons to the increasingly desperate Republican forces.
The basic plot of “Midnight in Europe” will sound familiar to Alan Furst fans (and indeed fans of Eric Ambler and Graham Greene, and countless others): A civilian in prewar Europe is swept into ever-widening circles of intrigue in countries populated by “officials, with authority from some bureau no one ever heard of, whose sole purpose on earth was to demand to see one’s papers, which would lack a validating stamp that no one ever heard of.”
Ferrar and his partner Max de Lyon are aided — and thwarted — by the usual suspects: shadowy underworld figures of indeterminate nationality, patriots, arms traders, bankers, Communists, Socialists, democrats, even an enigmatic Marquesa. Here’s the scene in a Parisian nightclub in 1938: “slumming nouveaux riches, swindlers, spies, prostitutes of the higher order.” Ferrar imagines himself in “a kind of undersea world. Beneath a placid sea, exotic creatures mated and fed on each other and, as you sank deeper, the world turned darker and the creatures turned strange indeed.”
As always, Furst is a master of atmosphere, re-creating those prewar days so vividly we can almost imagine that we, like the characters, operate in the dark at midnight, unaware of what happens next, unaware that the new day will bring the surrender of the Republican forces and the horrors of a world plunged into war. “Midnight in Europe” is not as suspenseful as Furst’s best novels — “The World at Night,” “Dark Voyage” and “Spies of the Balkans,” in my opinion — but it is nevertheless a satisfying read, a thoughtful thriller that re-creates the murkiness, suspicion and terrors of this historic midnight.
Patricia Hagen teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.