Welcome to Murder by the Book's blog about what we've read recently. You can find our website at www.mbtb.com.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Dark Star (trade, $14.95), by Alan Furst (c1991)

Alan Furst hit a literary goldmine when he began to write his books set in Europe during World War II. He combines a comprehensive historical sense with the ability to create characters that are thoughtful and complex.

The United States is not the center of World War II in Furst's books. Instead, Furst looks primarily at the conflicting interests -- sometimes in public, but often in private -- of Nazi Germany versus Stalin's Soviet Union. Communism is a vital ideology used to marshal forces to combat Hitler's march across Europe. Caught in the middle of the territorial grab-and-snatch are the rest of the countries of Europe, and especially of Eastern Europe. Furst's books reference events from 1934 through 1945.

Most of Furst's protagonists are not citizens of the big power countries. They come from places like beleaguered Poland and Hungary; but they travel widely, using various devices, to France, the Soviet Union, Spain. At the center of each character's motivation lies something personal -- love, a search for safety and security, family. From the big concern to the little thought, Furst tosses it all ingeniously into the mix.

André Szara of Dark Star has survived the twists and turns of the volatile and evolving politics of Poland and the Soviet Union. Ostensibly working as an international journalist for Pravda, Szara is gradually and unwillingly drawn into spying for the Soviet Union … or maybe just a faction within the Soviet Union … or maybe a couple of factions. Who knows? Changing allegiances and shifting power move his handlers in and out (sometimes forever out) of the scene. Szara experiences fear, then resignation, and finally a guarded moral ambiguity about what he is asked to do.

Szara clings to the thought of love as his salvation. Before his life becomes extremely complicated, he meets a woman in Germany and falls rapidly in love. She becomes a Madonna to light his way, but it is only in his thoughts because he is moved further and further away from the possibility of seeing her again.

Furst's narrative is convoluted. Thoughts jump around, mirroring the uneven path of historical events. I would even suggest a second reading once you finish the book and understand who the viable players are. It's easier the second time to admire the path Furst lays out for his (in this case) hapless protagonist.

It's often like watching a jerky documentary with no hand-holding narrative to accompany it. The reader is rewarded by a sense of having glimpsed a world that really existed. How hard it is sometimes just to survive!

[Furst has a two-book series with Jean Casson, a film producer who becomes a member of the Resistance in occupied France: The World at Night (1996) and Red Gold (1999). His other books are Night Soldiers (1988), The Polish Officer (1995), Kingdom of Shadows (2000), Blood of Victory (2002), Dark Voyage (2005), The Foreign Correspondent (2006), and The Spies of Warsaw (2008). -- We have copies of several of these works and you are invited to email us at books@mbtb.com if you are interested in purchasing a title.]

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