Title: Night Soldiers (Night Soldiers #1)
Author: Alan Furst
Publication year: 1988
Plot Summary from Goodreads: Bulgaria, 1934. A young man is murdered by the local fascists. His brother, Khristo Stoianev, is recruited into the NKVD, the Soviet secret intelligence service, and sent to Spain to serve in its civil war. Warned that he is about to become a victim of Stalin’s purges, Khristo flees to Paris. Night Soldiers masterfully re-creates the European world of 1934–45: the struggle between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia for Eastern Europe, the last desperate gaiety of the beau monde in 1937 Paris, and guerrilla operations with the French underground in 1944. Night Soldiers is a scrupulously researched panoramic novel, a work on a grand scale.
How did I miss this series? Beginning in a small Bulgarian town in 1934, Furst follows Khristo Stoinev for the next 12 years or so, through the Spanish Civil War, Paris, and Bessarabia, an area of what is now Moldova. Along the way, Khristo is a trained spy for the NKVD. He is sent to Spain as part of his spy work, and becomes the subject of one of Stalin’s irrational purges, flees and spends the rest of WWII trying to stay alive.
The book begins with a scene in Khristo’s hometown, where his brother is beaten to death for laughing at a petty autocrat with delusions of importance, who is being recruited by a German. Close in time, a Russian comes to town to engage in some recruitment for the motherland. This is during the lead up to WWII, when Germany and the USSR are jockeying for importance and supremacy in the Balkans.
Most of the book occurs from the POV of Khristo and his fellow NKVD officers, which makes it significantly different from most WWII spy fiction. My favorite part of the book was the second section, set in 1937 Paris, just prior to the occupation.
Furst has a genius for placing individuals on a huge stage. The book reminded me a bit of Doctor Zhivago in that way – we know from the dates that enormously consequential events are playing out in a global arena, but his narrow focus on the characters and their day-to-day business of survival and spycraft has the effect of humanizing those historical events. He is not interested in the Prime Ministers and Presidents, rather his focus is on the small individuals and how their actions fit into the large story.
His ability to evoke a historical scene is also truly remarkable. He has an eye for the detail that makes history come alive. Night Soldiers is the perfect name for the book, because so much of the action happens during the dark hours, and the pictures in my mind are all black and white and barely lit.
There are a total of 14 books in this series at this point. Each book appears to be a standalone, and I’m pretty sure that Furst is done with Khristo. While nominally categorized as espionage, my sense of the series feels bigger than that, as though perhaps I have discovered a modern version of Zola’s Les Rougon-Macquart, focused on a hyper-realistic exploration of what it was like to live and work as a spy during WWII.
So far, the summer of spies has been epically successful, generating, at this point, two separate ongoing reading projects: Graham Greene and the Night Soldiers series. Can’t ask for more than that!