Dark Star by Alan Furst

Europe, 1937. André Szara is a Jewish, Polish-born foreign correspondent for the Soviet newspaper Pravda (“Truth”), and considering his job it is not surprising that NKVD approaches him (NKVD being the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, the public and secret police that was the root of the Committee for State Security, or KGB). Just like journalists, security organizations are in the business of data and information, and surely Szara is willing to share the facts he is digging up, is he not?

Over time, the assignments get more involved and eventually the journalist finds himself drawn into deep espionage as he is obtaining information on German steel wire production, which can easily be linked to the German military build-up.

The plot evolves but it does not necessarily unfold. Much like a soldier in a big maneuver Szara lacks an overview of the big scheme of things, and the structure of the tale reflects this: order is added to order and task is added to task as Szara travels from one city to another, not always understanding the reasons for the trips, and unaware of what the powers that be – in this case especially Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin – are involved in.

The perspective is strictly street view: European city streets in darkness and rain, men and women living in decrepit hotels, having their meals in cheap restaurants and cafés, Paris gloomily anticipating another great war, and Berlin oppressive and unsettling under the iron fist of a totalitarian regime.

Alan Furst’s novels are heavy on ambiance and less concerned with action, graphic violence, and fast-paced adventures. His books could perhaps be described as existential spy novels. They are filled with contemplative reflection and deal with people who are trying to do the right thing in a world going horribly wrong. They are characters in novels, but – as Furst points out – “people like them existed; people like them were courageous people with ordinary lives and, when the moment came, they acted with bravery and determination.”

Follow them in Dark Star.

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