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Floating Spies

WWII intrigue and shades of gray

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Alan Furst, now in his 60s, has finally become a popular writer. In 1988, Furst published Night Soldiers, the first of eight (and counting) novels dedicated to the noir-ish world of spies, soldiers and fearful citizens inhabiting the countries of crumbling Europe during the 1930s and 1940s. It fared well with critics in Britain and America, but didn't make much of a sales dent.

Things continued in the same vein for the next decade, with Furst churning out reliable, smart, moody works heavy on spare prose and period detail. Three years ago, the stars aligned with Kingdom of Shadows, another sparkling World War II-era novel -- and, this time, a strong seller after fawning mentions from NPR, Time, Charlie Rose and the New York Times.

Now Furst, invariably compared with previous genre-busting practitioners Eric Ambler, Graham Greene and John le Carre, returns with his eighth espionage tale, Dark Voyage, which takes place over a two-month span in the spring of 1941, mostly aboard a Dutch tramp freighter led by Eric DeHaan.

DeHaan, as with most Furst protagonists, is a reluctant hero, a troubled man who would just as soon not be involved, but is. He mostly does the right thing, though most of his decisions carry a doomed sense of moral ambiguity.

The novel begins in Tangier, where DeHaan has been summoned to an unusual dinner at the request of the owner of the Netherlands Hyperion Line, whose holdings include DeHaan's freighter, the Noordendam. By the end of the night, DeHaan will find himself agreeing to sail for the British Royal Navy's Intelligence Division, moving materiel for covert Allied missions. Except that the Noordendam ceases to exist. Instead, DeHaan and his crew become the Santa Rosa, flying the flag of neutral Spain while engaging in a series of increasingly risky missions.

That sums up the plot. As Furst mentions in interviews, though, it isn't plot that drives his novels. It's character (many shades of gray) and historical verisimilitude (the origins of a favored London hangout for maritime cargo brokers is here, as are enough captain's logs to make James T. Kirk envious). And, of course, brisk prose:

DeHaan was, that morning, particularly tuned to his engine, its pitch, its vibration in the deck beneath his feet. Now, even at eight knots, a speed dictated by the ancient Triton, it was laboring. Because Noordendam was clearly overloaded -- holds full to the hatch covers with bombs and mines, the foredeck carrying the four tanks and the Hurricane fighter planes, the wind sighing, a strange, ghostly hum, as it blew across their wings.

The freighter carries a collection of misfits. A Jewish medical officer who, in fact, isn't licensed yet since all of his experience is limited to cadavers. The cast also includes a stubborn Polish engineer, Franco-fighting Spaniards, an Egyptian radio officer, and a female Russian journalist on the run, along with DeHaan and the Dutch crewmen.

Furst isn't one to idle in chitchat, though he sprinkles in engaging asides. As the Noordendam becomes the Santa Rosa, an ally in the maritime operation relates how an aged Spanish flag was procured: It was stolen from a yacht. But only after an earlier attempt to create an aged flag -- washing it in lye, soaking it in seawater and, finally, baking it dry -- leads to a fire and, alas, a flag not so much aged as charred.

It takes Furst little more than two pages to paint a scene of devastating poignancy. Sailing from Tangier to Lisbon, the crew is rewarded with a one-time gift: watching a movie on deck under the stars. Many aboard don't speak English, the projector distorts the rhythm of the James Cagney-Joan Blondell musical with herky-jerky delivery and the sound system has been ruined by rats. Still, the movie offers respite from war and espionage and all the rest:

The officers and crew sat on a hatch cover and had a fine time -- some of them couldn't understand a word of it, but that didn't matter either. It was a Busby Berkeley movie, so there was plenty to look at; crowds of girls in skimpy costumes and, soon enough, in bathing suits, forming and re-forming in a water ballet that ended in a grand climax, a fountain of swimmers, sleek and sinuous, waving their arms like graceful birds.

The novel's biggest flaw is the author's acknowledged Achilles' heel: plot. As good as Furst is with character and veracity, Dark Voyage sputters on several occasions because of its episodic nature. The Noordendam wanders from place to place until it doesn't. Such anchorless storytelling can be frustrating, but, as master and commander of period and place, Furst makes up for those flaws with a steady hand and exacting detail. It's enough to pay the freight on an entertaining, if dark, voyage.

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