Title: “Night Soldiers” by Alan Furst
After reading “Mission to Paris” and enjoying it, I decided to start with the first of the “Night Soldiers” series of novels, fittingly titled “Night Soldiers”.
At 470+ pages it definitely weighed in at quite a bit longer than “Mission to Paris”. At that length Furst covers quite a bit more of a timeline than the other novel. The story starts in 1934 and ends in 1945 at the end of World War 2. In addition to the timeline Furst covers more physical territory than “Mission to Paris”. From Bulgaria, to Russia, to Paris, to America the book is literally all over the map. Quite a grand attempt on a first time out in a genre. Was he successful in getting it right?
In this first novel Furst clearly has the talent of description down pat. As in “Mission to Paris” this earlier novel shows the author can paint a very descriptive picture. He is a master at letting you see these characters and locations in the mind’s eye. But in this early work he has issues with timing and structuring the novel. Part of the problem is that while being fantastic at description the pacing is way off. He spends far too much time describing things and not as much time working on effectively making the story flow.
There are erratic jumps back and forth in time that really make the story difficult to follow. He uses these jumps to introduce new characters and eventually brings people together in the same timeline and interacting with one another. I just found the years-apart timeline jumps disconcerting. The standard way of doing this in a novel seems to be to introduce the characters up front in the same timeline and have their histories move forward together. This lends to a better flow in the story while bringing the reader to the same point that Furst reached here, which is having the characters interact with one another further on in time. It certainly is a better way to structure the novel and isn’t quite as jarring to the reader.
I also think that more time could have been spent editing to tighten up the novel. For example, later in the book Khristo Stoianev is being pursed by a German officer after attempting a late-night, clandestine, meeting with an old friend who intends to deliver a letter. Stoianev sees his friend shot and retreats to get away from the Germans he sees near the body of his friend. The scene should have ended there because ultimately Stoianev gets away. Furst keeps it going though and we get a scene where the German officer follows Stoianev into a burned out, abandoned factory and ultimately falls to his death in the dark. I think the attempt here was to keep up the tension but it just didn’t work. There wasn’t any direct interaction between Stoianev and the German officer and the resolution by the man’s falling to his death was a very unsatisfactory end to the scene. There were many areas in the story that should have ended up in the trash. It would have helped tighten up the story.
All this being said I still enjoyed the novel. I love writers who can evoke vivd scenes and again Furst is a master. I also have to allow for the fact that, while not his first novel, this was his first foray into a lengthy take on the spy genre. I think that he probably shouldn’t have started with a story that attempted to trace the histories of a large set of characters, over a long period of time, and across many countries. Clearly between the first and latest books he has learned to tighten things up and the novels have become more enjoyable. Next on my list to read is the third novel in the series titled “The Polish Officer”. It will be exciting to see how Furst improved his craft as a novelist between books.