Night Soldiers by Alan Furst

Title: Night Soldiers (Night Soldiers #1)
Author: Alan Furst
Publication year: 1988
Pages: 456

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!

Mystery in the Channel by Freeman Wills Crofts

Title: Mystery in the Channel
Author: Freeman Wills Crofts
Publication Year: 1931
Pages: 256

Plot Summary (from Goodreads): Mystery in the Channel is a classic crime novel with a strikingly modern sub-text. The story begins with a shocking discovery. The captain of the Newhaven to Dieppe steamer spots a small pleasure yacht lying motionless in the water, and on closer inspection, sees a body lying on the deck. When members of his crew go aboard the yacht, they find not one male corpse but two. Both men have been shot, but there is no sign of either the murderer or the pistol. The dead men, it quickly emerges, were called Moxon and Deeping, and they were chairman and vice-chairman respectively of the firm of Moxon General Securities, one of the largest financial houses in the country. Inspector Joseph French of Scotland Yard is called in, reporting directly to the Assistant Commissioner, Sir Mortimer Ellison. French soon discovers that Moxon’s is on the brink of collapse. One and a half million pounds have gone missing, and so has one of the partners in the business. Moxon and Deeping seem to have been fleeing the country with their ill-gotten gains, but who killed them, and how? French faces one of the toughest challenges of his career, and in a dramatic climax, risks his life in a desperate attempt to ensure that justice is done.

This was my second Inspector French mystery, which I preferred to the first, The Hog’s Back Mystery. My primary complaint about The Hog’s Back Mystery was that it got bogged down in tedious detailing of the clues, and that Crofts skimped on supporting character development, resulting in characters who were difficult to tell apart.

To be quite frank, those complaints remained in this installment, albeit to a lesser degree. The book begins with a bang – a steamer finds a yacht dead in the water, with two dead bodies on board. From there, it is towed back to port, where the dead are speedily identified and the search for the murderer commences.

Thinking back on the book at its conclusion, I do not think that there was a single female character in this book. Inspector French may have spoken to a female shopkeeper at some point during the tale while he was canvassing for information about a suspect, but, if he did, it was in such passing that it didn’t register with me at all. Every character of consequence in this book was a man.

It is quickly established that the two victims were principals in a financial firm which was on the brink of failure. It being 1931, there was no taxpayer funded Troubled Assets Recovery Program available to bail out the firm, or its clients, which resulted in thousands of ordinary Brits losing their fortunes, such as they were. It was also quickly established that someone had looted whatever was left of the money, and that the murders appeared to have something to do with this financial chicanery.

I loved this aspect of the book. It was, in fact, a “strikingly modern subtext.” I, like the Assistant Commissioner quoted below, find the fraudulent machinations of the already wealthy to enrich their already overflowing pockets, disgusting:

“The Assistant Commissioner was a man who, while utterly relentless in his war on crime, not infrequently showed a surprising sympathy with the criminal. He always deplored the punishment of the out-of-work or the poorly paid, who, seeing his family in want, had stolen to relieve their immediate needs. Even on occasion he had surprised French by expressing regret as to the fate of the murderers. Murderers, he held, were by no means necesssarily hardened criminals. In their ranks, they numbered some of the most decent and inoffensive of men. But for the wealthy thief who stole by the manipulation of stocks and shares and other less creditable means known to high finance, whether actually within or without the limits of the law, he had only the most profound enmity and contempt.”

Trump University, anyone? To the wealthy of 2018, the poor and middle class are merely marks, and there is a sucker born every minute. How I wonder what Freeman Wills Crofts and the Assistant Commissioner would’ve thought of the band of vulpine thieves in charge of our public treasury?

Anyway, Inspector French is a rather plodding character, but in a good way. He is, perhaps, not given to flashes of insight, but he is thorough, and good police work is its own reward. Through many twists and turns and blind alleys and dead ends, he does arrive at the correct solution.

There was, again, some tedious alibi deconstruction, with time tables and analysis of ocean currents and wind direction. I’ve realized that I do not care about these things – I am not going to pull out a pad of paper and start making a little table of distances and times to see if I, before Inspector French, can bust an alibi. I just want to be entertained to the end of the tale, and this minutiae does not entertain me. This particular book is mentioned in Chapter 13 of The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, Scientific Inquiries, on the strength of this element. Apparently Crofts was an engineer, and put that background to work in his fiction.

The problem with characterization persisted in this book and was amplified by the fact that every single character of note, as I stated above, was a middle-aged white guy of moderate wealth and education. There were several occasions where a name came up that I didn’t immediately recognize, but it was clear that this character had been introduced before, so I had to flip backwards in the book to try to identify exactly who it was.

I enjoyed it enough that I will continue to explore Inspector French, but I wish that Crofts would let him off the chain a bit. The man barely has a personal life, and he seems like a decent guy. Give him a vacation, for god’s sake!

Tuesdays with the Queen: Resourceful Young Women and The Man in the Brown Suit

Title: The Man in the Brown Suit
Author: Agatha Christie
Year of Publication: 1924
Pages: 381

Plot Summary (from Goodreads): The newly-orphaned Anne Beddingfield came to London expecting excitement. She didn’t expect to find it on the platform of Hyde Park Corner tube station. When a fellow passenger pitches onto the rails and is electrocuted, the ‘doctor’ on the scene seems intent on searching the victim rather than examining him…

Armed with a single clue, Anne finds herself struggling to unmask a faceless killer known only as ‘The Colonel’ – while ‘The Colonel’ struggles to eliminate her…

The Man in the Brown Suit is a very early Christie, published in 1924 on the heels of the second Poirot mystery, Murder on the Links, and right before the first Superintendent Battle mystery, The Secret of Chimneys. In this one, she introduces the enigmatic Colonel Race, who subsequently appears in Cards on the Table, Death on the Nile and Sparkling Cyanide.

This is also the first of her books narrated in first person by one of her adventerous young women, in this case Anne Beddingfield, impoverished but plucky daughter of a well-known archaeologist. Upon the death of her father, Anne takes her 87 pound inheritance to London, where she is on the search for adventure and darkly attractive, taciturn men to fascinate her.

The Man in the Brown Suit is equal parts romance and mystery, with a side of international criminal intrigue, all taking place under the hot African sky. I get the sense, reading it, that Christie put a lot of herself in Anne Beddingfield, and the incident where Anne goes surfing only strengthens that sense. For those of you who don’t know, Christie was an avid surfer as a young woman, and was the first British woman to surf standing up, which occurred in Capetown, South Africa during the writing of this book.

The plot is profoundly silly and entirely unbelievable, and, like The Secret Adversary, falls into the general category of “international thriller,” as opposed to simple whodunnit. Over the years, Christie created several young sidekicks, all independent, single women (distinguishing them from Tuppence, who is partnered with Tommy from the beginning of the book). All of these dashing young women get their choice of suitors at the end of the tale and the books that feature them are some of my favorites – Emily Trefusis from The Sittaford Mystery, Sarah King from Appointment with Death, Lucy Eyelesbarrow from 4:50 From Paddington and Jane Grey in Death in the Clouds.

Although they share characteristics, these characters are far from interchangeable, each possessing quirks and talents of her own, but the skill with which Christie created them makes me wish that she had gone ahead and written a sleuth in this mold, in addition to Poirot and Marple. The books featuring them are universally some of my favorites – there is a whiff of self-insert, but only a whiff, with tons of charm and resourcefulness.

This is likely a book for Christie completists, as it is a bit on the weird side. However, the more times I read it, the more I enjoy it.

The Hog’s Back Mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts

Previously published on my Booklikes Blog on March 24, 2018

Title: The Hog’s Back Mystery
Author: Freeman Wills Crofts
Year of Publication: 1933
Pages: 328

Plot Summary (from Goodreads): Dr James Earle and his wife live in comfortable seclusion near the Hog’s Back, a ridge in the North Downs in the beautiful Surrey countryside. When Dr Earle disappears from his cottage, Inspector French is called in to investigate. At first he suspects a simple domestic intrigue – and begins to uncover a web of romantic entanglements beneath the couple’s peaceful rural life.

The case soon takes a more complex turn. Other people vanish mysteriously, one of Dr Earle’s house guests among them. What is the explanation for the disappearances? If the missing people have been murdered, what can be the motive? This fiendishly complicated puzzle is one that only Inspector French can solve.

Freeman Wills Crofts was a master of the intricately and ingeniously plotted detective novel, and The Hog’s Back Mystery shows him at the height of his powers. This new edition of a classic mystery is introduced by the crime fiction expert Martin Edwards.

The Hog’s Back Mystery is identified by Martin Edwards in The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books in Chapter 4, “Play Up! Play Up! And Play the Game!, as an example of the fair play mystery, where the author drops all of the clues needed to solve the mystery. As an added bonus, Crofts included a “clue finder” in the final chapter, where Inspector French walks the reader through the solution.

I’ve settled on three stars for this one. The first half of the book was really a two star read for me – I struggled with the pace and felt that it really dragged. I rarely take more than a couple of days to read a book, unless it is weighty non-fiction, so the fact that I started this all the way back on March 3 is pretty telling. I’ve finished at least 5 books since then, all of which were started after March 3.

However, the second half of the book was a four star read, and it flew by. I picked the book up again today, and within a few pages had gotten to a third disappearance, and suddenly I was completely engaged, and finished it in about an hour.

I think that part of my issue with the book was really Crofts’s focus on the “fair play” aspect of the mystery. He obviously wanted to use the clue finder technique, but to me, that bogged things down in unnecessary explication and tedious detail, to the detriment of character development. I had a terrible time even remembering who all of the characters were – I found them all fairly flat and interchangeable.

Except for Inspector French, who I really liked a lot. There were also some little details that Crofts brought into the story to humanize him that I appreciated, such as the brief scene where he and his wife take a day trip out to the shore that was just so charming:

“They enjoyed every minute of it and found the breath of sea air invigorating and wholly delightful. These excursions counted for a great deal in both their lives. Though married for more years than French cared to contemplate, he and his wife remained as good pals as ever they had been.”

I always love it when I see glimpses of good marriages in crime fiction, because they are so rare. All too often fictional detectives are depicted as dysfunctional cheating alcoholics with their lives in turmoil, so Inspector French’s simple, prosaically happy marriage was a breath of fresh air that added some much needed complexity to his character.

It has long been clear to me that character depth and development is just as important to my enjoyment of a book as a compelling plot or a surprising twist. I will definitely give Crofts another go on the strength of my affinity for French, but for my money, he could forgo some of the tedious clue dropping and just get on with the story.

This Rough Magic by Mary Stewart

Title: This Rough Magic
Author: Mary Stewart
Year of publication: 1964
Pages: 384

Plot summary from Goodreads: British actress Lucy Waring believes there is no finer place to be “at liberty” than the sun-drenched isle of Corfu, the alleged locale for Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Even the suspicious actions of the handsome, arrogant son of a famous actor cannot dampen her enthusiasm for this wonderland in the Ionian Sea.

Then a human corpse is carried ashore on the incoming tide …

This book sits at the intersection of mystery and romance, in the same place that a book like Rebecca sits – there is a mystery to solve, but it isn’t really focused on the whodunnit so much as it is focused on the danger to the heroine and the romantic currents simmering beneath the surface. It barely fits into the parameters of this blog, but it was published prior to 1980, and it does involve crime, so I’m talking about it here!

I want to start by wondering aloud if anyone else writes like Mary Stewart? Because if there is another Mary Stewart out there, I want to find her. Her books are the perfect combination of romance and suspense, set in the most beautiful places. I really enjoy the fact that they are contemporaries for the time that they were written.

I would say that the closest that I have found to Stewart is Phyllis Whitney, who writes very similar romantic suspense/gothic romance, but she just doesn’t have the writing chops of Mary Stewart. I’m wondering if anyone is aware of any modern authors who are writing this same type of book. I don’t really enjoy the Pamela Clare style of romantic suspense, and J.D. Robb doesn’t do much for me.

This was my first time reading This Rough Magic – it was one of my massive Mary Stewart kindle book purchase last fall. It is definitely up there with The Moonspinners for me in enjoyability, and I liked it better than both The Ivy Tree and Wildfire at Midnight.

This Rough Magic follows the Mary Stewart playbook – attractive young woman on her own goes to exotic place, becomes embroiled in something dangerous – espionage, smuggling, murder – falls in love with an equally attractive young man after they cross paths. Stewart has a gift for creating suspense, and one of the things that I liked about This Rough Magic is that the main character, Lucy Waring, extricates herself from danger with resourcefulness and persistence. She doesn’t wait to be rescued – she rescues herself. I liked this a lot, and it placed Lucy on a footing of equality with the male love interest.

The Corfu setting is beautiful. Mary Stewart used Shakespeare’s The Tempest as a jumping off point for the book, with quotes from the play as chapter headings, and discussions about The Tempest between the heroine, Lucy, a not-terribly-successful actress from London and Julian Gale, a very successful Shakespearean actor who has come to Corfu to recuperate from a nervous breakdown. Stewart’s descriptive talents are formidable and she does a wonderful job of painting a mental picture of beautiful places. It had the same effect on me as The Moonspinners in making me want to jump on an airplane and fly off to a sunny climate, especially given that I am suffering mightily from spring fever in the midst of a grey Oregon winter.

As a downside, as is the case with a lot of mid-twentieth century fiction, there is a lot of colonialism and superiority in Lucy’s interactions with the native Corfuites – the “nobility of the peasantry” condescension. This is likely inevitable given the time in which it was written, but, still, it is present.

Overall, This Rough Magic was a delightful read.

The Secret Adversary or How To Succeed In Spying Without Really Trying

Title: The Secret Adversary
Author: Agatha Christie
Publication Year: 1922
Pages: 400

Plot Summary courtesy of Goodreads: Tommy and Tuppence, two young people short of money and restless for excitement, embark on a daring business scheme – Young Adventurers Ltd.

Their advertisement says they are ‘willing to do anything, go anywhere’. But their first assignment, for the sinister Mr Whittington, plunges them into more danger than they ever imagined…

The Secret Adversary was Christie’s second novel, coming directly on the heels of The Mysterious Affair At Styles, her first Poirot outing which was published in 1920. For the first decade or so of Christie’s career she dabbled heavily in the thriller/espionage genre, publishing The Man in the Brown Suit, The Secret of Chimneys, The Seven Dials Mystery and The Big Four, all of which deal with international crime gangs and conspiracies with varying levels of competence and success. After The Big Four (which is nominally a Poirot, the plot of which, however, deals less with garden variety murder than with a strange, Austin Powers-esque international crime conspiracy), her publisher must have convinced her to abandon her not very convincing thriller career in favor of writing whodunnits, because she doesn’t write another international crime thriller until the second Tommy and Tuppence novel published in 1941.

I am of mixed emotions about this because I find her early thrillers (with the exception of The Big Four, which was absolutely terrible) to be weirdly charming in their innocence about the incompetence of the political criminal/international criminal mastermind. The Secret Adversary definitely falls into the category of charming and innocent. The basic plot is whisper thin (literally – it’s based on Tommy overhearing two people whispering about a woman named Jane Finn) and is generally about the possession of some government documents by a young woman (with amnesia. Yes, really) and an international crime syndicate who want to get a hold of those documents in order to foment revolution in England. If this doesn’t make any sense to you, that’s because it doesn’t actually make any sense. Tommy and Tuppence are two broke Bright Young Things who decide that the best way for them to come into possession of a few pounds is to place an ad in the newspaper, to try to hire themselves out as adventurers.

It’s preposterous and in the real world (i.e., modern fiction) they’d have been dead within about 25 pages, and the rest of the book would’ve been spent with the professionals attempting to figure out why these two charming young people ended up murdered by terrorists. That’s not how this one goes, though. It feels like such an innocent world in The Secret Adversary (and in The Secret of Chimneys as well). I can only wonder if this was simply a reaction to the trauma that WWI inflicted on the British people, and surmise that, perhaps, what they really needed was to believe that a pair of innocent children could, with little money, good intentions, sparkling wit and a reasonably stylish outfit could, in fact, save the world. Because there is nothing even remotely convincing or realistic about this plot, but somehow, it’s impossible to care because it is all so delightful.

This was my first time reading The Secret Adversary, and I doubt that it will become one of my favorites although I thoroughly enjoyed it. I went into it convinced that Tommy and Tuppence were lifted wholesale from Dashiell Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles – imagine my surprise when I actually looked it up and learned that T & T predated N & N by a dozen years. I should’ve known better, though – The Queen sets trends, she doesn’t follow them.

Announcing: Tuesdays with the Queens of Crime

Each Tuesday, I will post something related to the queens of crime: Christie, Sayers, Allingham or Marsh. At the outset, there will probably be a lot of Christie related content, since I am most familiar with her books, and she has a number of new adaptations being released as well as a new biography coming out in 2018. As this blog progresses, I will add reviews and posts about the other three authors. At this point, I’ve read one or two of the Albert Campion books, most of the Peter Wimsey mysteries, and I can’t remember reading anything by Ngaio Marsh.