Furst (Red Gold, 1999, etc.) returns to a bygone Paris and its perversely menacing environs, this time spotlighting a gallant, impeccably suave Hungarian who abruptly leaves the City of Light’s parks and cafés on daring missions of intrigue.
Debonair debauchee Nicholas Morath is living high in 1938 as a member of the tout Paris, a whirling community of gracefully aging royals, devil-may-care artists, and cynical denizens of the demimonde torn between lighting out for the seaside villa in Normandy, plunging into the casinos of Deauville, or continuing their hedonistic wallow in the stylish city that both adores and ignores them. Morath puts in the odd hour or two at his advertising agency, but prefers the company of his sexy Argentine mistress Cara, who has just been painted nude by Picasso. Just when his life seems to have reached its delightfully dull peak, Morath is summoned to lunch by his uncle, Count Janos Polyani, a crafty official in the Hungarian legation. Now that Hitler has annexed Austria, portending trouble for Hungarians in their native land and abroad, the decorous Count has a favor or four to ask of his nephew. The favors, presented in four interconnected novellas, send the quietly courageous Morath into the Paris expatriate underworld and on several missions into the beautiful gloom of prewar Eastern Europe, where the Reich is opening old wounds and stirring up ancient hatreds. In a series of increasingly dangerous missions—from which Morath always manages to return in time for an aperitif and an amorous romp—he finds himself played as both king and pawn by devious intriguers who all know that they are living in the last light of a dying era.
Furst’s narrative, like its hero, lingers so long at the café table that a great deal of the suspense lies in hoping that suspense will arrive. Fortunately, the action scenes are fresh, brutal, and well worth the wait.