John Le Carre's has abandoned Cold War spies for greedy international businessmen. The torch has been passed: Alan Furst is now the greatest living writer of espionage fiction. In five novels, he has charted the murky terrain of spy-riddled Europe on the eve of the second World War in seductively evocative prose that has you smelling the espresso wafting from the cafes. From Moscow to Paris-and many obscure Balkan neighborhoods in between-Furst submerges the reader in the harsh, romantic lives of his disparate and desperate characters with spectacular skill.
The best of the lot, 1996's The World at Night, followed the life of Jean Casson, a wealthy French film producer, whose sophisticated life in late 1930's Paris crumbled with the Nazi invasion. A sensualist of no particular ideological persuasion, almost against his will he found himself aiding the British intelligence service as they worked to undermine the Germans within France. Arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo in 1941, Casson managed to escape into the darkness, but was compelled to take on a new identity, and remain perpetually on the run.
Furst's latest novel, Red Gold, picks up Casson's story after his arrest. Casson has adopted a new identity, that of Jean Louis Marin. Wanted by the Gestapo, he should have faded into the French countryside. However, he returned to Paris, intent on finding his lover, the beautiful actress Citrine, "a folie de jeunesse at the age of forty two." Unable to locate Citrine, Casson's plans are simple: "Find a woman, crawl up into some garret, and wait for the war to end." Penniless, alone, avoiding his friends for fear of being compromised, he finds himself forced into thievery to survive.
Casson's criminal connections eventually reveal him to Captain Degrave. Reactivated into the army in May of 1940, Corporal Casson had taken newsreel footage of the French under Degrave. With his group under attack by the Nazis, Degrave disbanded the newsreel unit and sent Casson and the rest of his men home. Now, however, Degrave has a new proposition for Casson.
Unknown to Casson, Degrave and others have, following the occupation, "reassembled the former Service des Renseignments, the intelligence service-the operational arm of the Deuxieme Bureau." Distrustful of the arrogant de Gaulle in England, Degrave and his associates sought to create their own internal force to fight the Germans.
Degrave offers Casson a job. Casson decides he couldn't refuse the man who saved his life from the advancing German troops.
Degrave's proposition is direct, but complicated. The Franc-Tireurs et Partisans, or "FTP is the clandestine action group of the French Communist Party." Degrave wants him to "make contact with them, on behalf of the intelligence network we're operating in Vichy."
Casson's assignment is most peculiar, given that the intelligence service has been fighting to undermine the communists in France since 1917. Now, out of wartime desperation, the French spies want Casson to help them forge a marriage of convenience with the communists, hoping that the violent and resourceful FTP will sabotage and impede the German occupation forces.
Casson finds himself negotiating between two distrustful enemies. Taking their orders from Moscow, the FTP inform Casson that they want a demonstration of good faith from Degrave's organization: six hundred submachine guns and a thousand rounds of ammunition for each gun. We then follow Casson through clandestine meetings from Holland to Marseilles as he brokers the weapons deal, with betrayal and death an ever-present possibility. By the novel's end, in 1942, we realize that Jean Casson still has work to do.
Furst's work most resembles that of a modern Eric Ambler. Among his contemporaries, Philip Kerr has also evoked the German side of the equation in his Berlin trilogy of mysteries featuring Bernhard Gunther. Unlike both Ambler and Kerr, however, Furst's landscape is the entire wartime theater. His range and historical erudition are such that episodes in a Bulgarian village along the Danube, a ritzy French restaurant filled with Wehrmacht officers, and a Moscow basement where a Russified Polish Jew experiences his own dark night of the soul are all equally convincing and compelling. Such is Furst's deftness that one can envision a Borgesian future in which Furst's characters begin to populate the history books of World War II.
Red Gold can be read independently of Furst's other work, although the reader's pleasure would be heightened by beginning with The World at Night. Trust me: if you read one you'll eventually find your way to all the others, so addictive is Furst's captivating prose.