To the intense pleasure of his rabid admirers, the master of the dark-little-between-the-wars thriller returns with another very, very good one.
Furst (Kingdom of Shadows, 2002, etc.) plots like a demon and writes better than an entire Iowa Workshop graduating class. Who else could toss off a joke about a Greta Garbo puppet drama in the middle of white-knuckled terror and make it work? The settings are Nazi-occupied Paris of late 1940 and the perpetually terrifying Romania, boiling in the fevers of civil war, fascist terror, and the Nazis next door. The reluctant, clever amateur (a Furst specialty) trying his hand at sabotage and spycraft is independently wealthy Russian émigré I.A. Serebin, a writer who has slipped away from Stalin’s Great Terror in the nick of time and joined the raggedy remnants of the Russian intelligentsia in Paris. Serebin’s adventures open with a luscious coupling aboard a steamer on the Black Sea. The fair white lady in Serebin’s stateroom is Marie-Galante Labonniere, wife of the diplomat just down the passageway. In Istanbul, Serebin will join the Labonnieres on their yacht for an evening of excellent food and his first meeting with the man who will recruit the writer into the hair-raising business of messing with the current overlords of Europe. What can a writer do to complicate things for the current allies of his late homeland? Ultimately, he can have a go at stopping barge traffic on the Danube, thereby choking the supply of Ploesti crude to the Wehrmacht, but to do so he’ll need to sidle through the Balkans from creepy capital to creepy capital in search of friends of liberty who aren’t afraid of German terror. It would all be unrelieved nightmare were it not for Marie-Galante’s slipping away from her duties as Madame Diplomat from time to time.
Furst will never get a Pulitzer (he’s much too readable), but he has got his own Absolut ad. Drink up.