The fourth book in the “Night Soldiers” series of World War II-era spy novels by Alan Furst evokes the feeling of what I assume is close to how it felt to live in Paris in 1940 under German occupation. Furst is a master of description and detail and with this book that is evident as ever. But is the book good? Can description and feeling be enough to carry a novel?
Set almost exclusively in Paris in 1940, in the time leading up to, and during, German occupation the book tells the story of French filmmaker Jean Casson. Let’s get out of the way quickly the discussion about Furst’s technical skill when it comes to creating atmosphere. Reading his books I can almost feel the streets beneath my feet and the smoke hanging over a crowded Paris nightclub. The details are not to be missed:
A cast of characters well beyond Jean Renoir. Adèle, the niece from Amboise. Real nobility- look at those awful teeth. Washed-out blue eyes gazed into his, a tiny pulse beat sparrowlike at the pale temple.
The man knows how to paint a picture in your mind.
The problem is it can’t carry a book. Unlike “The Polish Officer” there just isn’t much story here. The character of Casson is likable enough. The other characters are also well written. The problem here is that we’re always waiting for something to happen. I understand that he’s trying to show the uncertainty of what was going to happen. The Germans had run through Poland and even though there were indications that a treaty would be signed there was a huge amount of uncertainty of what Hitler was planning to do. Of course we know now that even while there were hopes of French acquiescence Hitler was also planning an invasion. The book is mostly effective showing this uncertainty but I can only take the scenes of parties and sexual encounters so much. These are supposed to be spy novels but there isn’t much spying going on.
I also understand that Furst is trying to show that common people can do extraordinary things in extraordinary circumstances. But what we see is Casson bumbling through encounters, being played by various sides. The problem here is that if I wanted normal I wouldn’t be reading a spy novel set in World War II. I don’t want ordinary characters. I want characters that are going to shoot first and ask questions later. Historical fiction or not reading a spy novel I want some action with my parties and sex.
The story flows as such, it just isn’t flowing very fast. The previous novel, “The Polish Officer”, was quickly paced and there as a lot going on as we followed, Captain Alexander de Milja’s exploits following the fall of Warsaw, and Poland, to German forces. The book covered a lot of territory; not quite as much territory as Night Soldiers but it also didn’t exhibit any of the problems that book had with story flow. We have none of that with “The World At Night”.
What we do have is a moderately enjoyable read solely due to Furst’s ability to create a lush atmosphere in which to place his characters. World War II certainly wasn’t lacking in story lines which is why it is so difficult to understand why this novel moved so slowly. All that being said I did enjoy the book but after reading 4 of the Night Soldiers novels I’m getting to the point where it’s clear that I’m not going to get much variety. I hope, with more novels to go, that I’m wrong but so far these stories have become pretty predictable.