There is a phenomenon in life known as Murphy's Law; in England it is sometimes called Sod's Law. If you know nothing about it, you can read the details here, but the general principle is that, if something can go wrong, it will; generally at the most inopportune moment.
It seemed to me, a couple of years ago, that Murphy's Law had begun to operate, big-time, in the career of Alan Furst. But in some respects it now turns out that I was wrong.
What happened was this: Alan Furst began writing thrillers about thirty years ago. He seems to keep fairly quiet about the first four (they are not listed on the 'Also by Alan Furst' page in his latest), so perhaps he feels that they are not up to his normal high standard. But by the time he wrote Night Soldiers (published in the UK in 1988) he was well into his stride.
All of Furst's books are set in and around the second world war, and many of them are located in occupied France, chiefly Paris. According to his interview with Robert Birnbaum, Furst has lived in Paris for some time (though he is, I believe, Canadian in origin). And you don't have to read very much of Furst to discover than he is enormously well informed about Europe in general, and the history of the second world war in particular. The books are really quite stunning in their grasp of events, and in their portrayal of human beings as they behave under the imminent threat of capture, torture and death.
So far so good. But up to about 2002, Furst remained something of an unknown. He had never had a really big seller, and frankly was never likely to, because his books are much too subtle and demanding for the average Joe. And if that sounds condescending, tough: it's simply true. The typical Jack Higgins reader is not going to find Furst easy to read: in order to appreciate Furst, you need a much more detailed knowledge of European history than the average sophomore is likely to possess.
But then in 2000 (as near as I can figure), Furst changed his publishers in the UK. He left HarperCollins and went to Orion, which first published him under the Gollancz imprint (Kingdom of Shadows) and now under Weidenfeld and Nicolson (Blood of Victory and Dark Voyage).
And where, you may be asking, does Murphy's Law come into all this? Well, it comes in right here. When Orion took Furst over, they gradually seem to have realised that they had got themselves a real gem. So for his next book they decided to splash out some money, with displays in Waterstone's windows and stuff like that. But, er, there was a problem. Murphy's Law dictated that Furst's next book (Blood of Victory ), on which so much publicity money would be spent, and on which so many hopes had been built, would not be all that good.
And I have to say that I found it most disappointing. I didn't even finish it. Of course, it may just have been me. But at least one reviewer on amazon UK agreed with me.
Anyway, it was with some trepidation that I picked up Dark Voyage. And fortunately, all is well.
Perhaps it will simplify things if I say that Dark Voyage is about as good as anyone could reasonably expect a novel to be. It tells an interesting story (set, of course, in the early years of the second world war); the characters are all too human, and constitute a wonderful sample of various nations; and the background is totally convincing (though Furst does not hesitate to bend the historical facts to fit his fiction if necessary, because this is a work of imagination, after all). And finally, the work is genuinely suspenseful: with ordinary thrillers writers you are never in much doubt that the good guys will win in the end, but with Furst, dammit, you are never quite sure.
The reason why you are never quite sure is because the author never has the slightest illusions about the enemy. Furst, being exceptionally well versed in European history, knows full well that, at the time he is writing about, the Germans were the nastiest and shittiest people on the face of the earth; with the exception, of course, of the Japanese, who contrived, somehow, to be worse.
I make no comment, please note, about the Germans and Japanese of today. Except to say that I am quite sure that they are now entirely different: they gladly help old ladies to cross the road, and they devote the whole of their spare time to good works among the poor and needy. They shed sweetness and light wherever they go. But in the second world war, to put it as politely as possible, they were not very nice.
Dark Voyage is warmly recommended. Better still, start with Night Soldiers and work your way to the present from there.