“Midnight in Europe” by Alan Furst. Random House, 2014. $27.
Midnight, the Devil’s hour, Europe in 1938: Franco and the Nationalists near victory in the Spanish Civil War, Hitler absorbs Austria, Chamberlain and Daladier abandon Czechoslovakia at Munich. Darkness leads only to pitch black; war will surely come in 1939.
Christián Ferrar is a Catalan Spaniard exile who has lived in France from childhood. Educated at the Lycée Charlemagne, trained at the Faculté de Droit of the Sorbonne, fluent in all the major European languages, he is a senior partner practicing international law at the Paris office of Coudert Frères, where “you could sense the probity, the legal version of ‘integrity.’ ”
Like many in what is left of democratic Europe, Ferrar understands that “Fascism is a revolutionary force, it wants to destroy the established order and take its place — take its money, its businesses, everything it has — because, to these people, the governing class is hesitant, ineffective, effete … So, destroy it … with the excuse that they’re fighting Bolshevism.”
Like too few, he acts on his convictions and so devotes his spare time to the lost cause of securing weapons for the Spanish Republic.
In this dangerous work, he counts on Max de Lyon, an arms merchant who drives a Morgan sports car and wears good tweeds, and on Stavros, a Macedonian “short, swarthy bear of a man,” reeking of powerful cologne, with a blonde on one arm, a brunette on the other.
They need 50 Skoda anti-tank guns and 36,000 shells. They need for 50,000 shells for Soviet-made anti-aircraft guns.
They seek out a Czech foundry owner with blackmail problems for the connection to Skoda, an Estonian military attaché open to bribery for a false end-user certificate, and a Russian gangster who scorns Communists to hijack ammunition from the Soviet naval base at Odessa.
Their tenuous network depends on a detective who looks “something like Oliver Hardy,” a spy who is a “meager little man nobody ever noticed,” and a “Professor Z” in a “battered old chalk-stripe suit,” who “knows things, all sorts of things, and he hates fascists.”
Ferrar braves Gestapo agents in Germany, conspiracies in Poland and attack in the Mediterranean from Mussolini’s navy.
In passing, he conducts a seduction at a brasserie over pommes lyonnaise and poulet de Bresse, has a love affair with a Spanish marquesa who may be working for Franco, and pines for an American girl he sees only on his brief trips to New York and the headquarters of the law firm.
So Ferrar is a perfect Alan Furst protagonist — brave, self-sacrificing, dashing — in Furst’s thirteenth novel of Europe on the brink of war or engulfed by it. “Midnight in Europe” may be the best of them all.
Benjamin Franklin Martin is the Price Professor of History at LSU. His most recent book is “Years of Plenty, Years of Want: France and the Legacy of the Great War (1913).”