I read this book on vacation and then came back to a whirlwind of work and taking our son to college, so am just now posting a review.
The book follows the police efforts of Woodrow Cain, a young policeman from North Carolina who has relocated to New York City in 1942 with the help of his father-in-law after his wife leaves him. Cain is clearly an outsider--others in the department mock his accent and his small-town experience. What they are missing, though, is that Cain is a tenacious and intuitive police officer. They should have been paying closer attention because almost immediately Cain is sent to investigate the first death in a case that has significant repercussions in the police department and other parts of New York officialdom. It appears that no one expected him to be successful and are unhappily surprised when he makes progress.
He's helped in his progress by an old man who calls himself Danziger. Danziger makes his living reading and writing letters between immigrants in New York and their family and friends back home. Many of them are Jewish and so more and more frequently, the letters from the people in New York to Europe go unanswered. It is very touching to hear him describe the services he provides and the sadness of not knowing, but strongly suspecting, what has happened to the recipients of the letters. "Their relations in Prague have fallen silent. It has been that way across the whole of the east of Europe for some time now. Candles flickering to darkness."
Although the main "mystery" is Cain's police case, Danziger is "The Letter Writer" and to me, he seemed to be the hero of the story. You end up with a great deal of affection for both of them and are particularly pleased at the piece of information that gives Danziger hope at the end, although it's a little too neat. Interestingly, the resolution of Cain's mystery is based on events that really occurred at the time, so I can't accuse that part of the story of being too neat.
I enjoyed this book very much and have recommended it to others who also enjoyed it.
I've read everything that Alan Furst has written. His first books were perfection and then he had sort of a less-good period. This book, however, was great. It reminded me of why I liked his earlier books so much.
This book tells the story of a man we know as Mathieu, a leader of the French Resistance, whose cell is devoted to spiriting British pilots who have experienced an emergency landing in France back to their home. It's late in the war and pilots have been dying like flies, so it's critically important that these pilots get back to fly more missions.
The book shows the clever plans of the cell, how they accomplish those plans, and what dangers they encounter through several vignettes of rescued pilots over a relatively short period of time. You get to know Mathieu best, but you also get a good feel for some of the other cell members, and even the pilots, who are drawn from all walks of life. Then the war ends and in the last few pages, you learn who Mathieu was in real life.
My favorite Alan Furst books are these slice-of-life ones--they feel a bit like short stories. You know that each of these characters had another life, engaged in Resistance work before the stories in this book, and then went on with their post-war lives afterwards. So you just see this significant moments in their lives. My least favorite Furst books involve love affairs and while there was still some of that in this book, there was not too much and it didn't ruin the book for me.
This book takes place in familiar Alan Furst territory: Paris right before WWII, when it's clear what's coming, but most people are still trying not to think about it.
"Most people" includes Cristian Ferrar, a Spanish aristocrat who has relocated his family to Paris to avoid the chaos that was Spain before and during the Civil War. When we meet him, he's folding up a newspaper and putting it back in his briefcase, "at least for the moment he would spare himself the smoke and fume of Europe on fire." He's a lawyer, working at a very conservative law firm in Paris. He gets pulled into helping the Republicans arm themselves, which his firm supports tacitly, but makes it clear that he can't embarrass them at all. His adventures become steadily less straightforward until he is buying arms in Berlin and trying to get them shipped to Spain in the face of many attempts to prevent him from doing so from people who appear to know a good deal more about his movements than he would have preferred.
This book seems more sophisticated to me than many of Furst's books. Ferrar himself and several other men who have been pulled into the arms efforts identify spies much more quickly than some of Furst's other protagonists (although Ferrar didn't see the danger until long after a reader who is paying attention sees it). Ferrar is a bit starry-eyed about the Republican side and is shocked when he realizes they've executed someone. But he's getting more sophisticated about evil, too--when he hears the story, he shakes his head "in sorrow. He'd heard so many of these stories as Spain tore itself to pieces." Some people you meet and even like have very sad endings, brought on more by the time and place in which they were living than anything else, which Ferrar understands better by the end of the book than he did at the beginning. Of course, the saddest ending at this point is in Spain and the book's ending is about as sad and ambiguous an ending as Furst has ever produced.
I have often complained that Furst shouldn't write romance in his books and this time, he controlled himself much better than in other outings, which I liked. No big emotional entanglements, thank goodness.
I also enjoyed his language. The two quotes above so perfectly capture what is must have been like to have been alive and in Europe during that time. Surely all countries tear themselves to pieces in civil war. And "smoke and fume" makes me think of images of hell and the devil, which are both very appropriate images for what was about to happen.
So...not quite as good as his earliest books, but much better than some of the middle ones (although even Furst's not-quite-as-good books are engaging reads). I thought the previous book was very good and this one even better. I hope Furst continues on this trajectory.