Night Soldiers was the 1988 novel in which Alan Furst began to work the territory which through him we now know so well: Europe in the 1930s, in the build up to World War II, and in the early years of that war. It's fascinating because a number of the characters from this book will pop up again – particularly in his next novel Dark Star, but Ilya Goldman recurs four times—but also because this novel is presented in a series of four episodes, starting with the recruitment and training of Bulgarian Khristo Stoianev to the Soviet NKVD, and through the Spanish Civil War, pre-war Paris, and the efforts of the French Resistance during the War. In a sense, it encapsulates all the concerns which would come to define Furst's later works, not least the sense in which putative allies can often be one's worst enemies.
The most successful of the four is called 'Blue Lantern', set during the Spanish Civil War. But for the fact that the back story of some of the characters has been filled in by the previous section, this actually reads like a excellent short story, beginning and ending with the olive trees of San Ximene, a metaphor which works without being overbearing. Of course it isn't self-contained; it has set the stage for the story to move on, and for other characters who will come back, but I found it instructive both as a story and as an indication in just how well Furst makes this episodic approach work.
Furst is often compared to Eric Ambler, and sometimes to Graham Greene, and there is validity in each, but that is more the surface of the stories. When you go underneath, the better comparisons might be to LeCarre, and that is the other thing that makes his writing work. It's the way situations exist in flux; assignments, betrayals, relationships. Stoianev may not be Furst's most-fully delineated character, but that suits the style. His very identity is constantly morphing, his nationality, his allegiances, his dreams. Even the most deep personal anchors turn out to be ephemeral, at least in reality, if not memory or emotion. That is the beauty of Furst's writing, and if this is not the most polished example, it is certainly a many-faceted jewel of a story.
Night Soldiers by Alan Furst
Orion Phoenix (2009) £7.99 ISBN 978-0753826355