Exotic locations, an intellectual hero swept up by historical events, mysterious women with sexy accents, Nazis. These are the reliable if increasingly shopworn hallmarks of the Alan Furst World War II thriller. A sophisticated and subtle writer who cares more about language and nuance than he does action sequences, Furst has often been compared to Graham Greene and John le Carré. And he belongs in that exalted company, if not for Dark Voyage, his listless 12th novel, then for 2002’s ”Blood of Victory” or 1983’s marvelous ”Shadow Trade.”
”Voyage” begins in 1941 at a glamorous, secretive Tangier dinner party, where Eric DeHaan, captain of the Dutch tramp freighter ”Noordendam,” is recruited to ”carry on the war.” Hereafter, rather than transport wood and phosphates, the ”Noordendam” will perform sensitive and dangerous undercover missions for the Allies. First up: Help some British commandos raid a German observation station in Tunisia.
The novel, which tracks DeHaan’s travels around the Mediterranean and up to the Baltic, contains a handful of discrete, loosely connected adventures. DeHaan goes ashore in Tunisia and almost dies in a gunfight; he smuggles arms to Crete; he agrees to transport an inscrutable secret agent heading to Sweden; he drops by Alexandria and takes up with a voluptuous Greek headmistress (who may also be a spy); he has an affair with an alluring Ukrainian journalist; he dodges Nazi mines off the coast of Estonia.
Furst seems to be trying to capture the incidental nature of real experience with his meandering travelogue of a plot; but it’s an unrewarding slog for the reader. Furst never grabs a story line and commits. None of the scenarios lead anywhere interesting; a few peter out abruptly and completely. Nor does Furst seem to have much conviction about his characters. Literate and thoughtful, DeHaan is a stock Furst protagonist who shows grace under pressure but, in this case, little charisma. His love affairs, complete with coyly suggestive bedroom scenes, seem manufactured to fulfill a formula.
It’s a formula that’s losing its potency. Furst has set his last seven novels in the 1930s and ’40s. But for a taste of just how excellent and irreverent he can be, for my money you need to go back to the wild, twisty ”Shadow Trade.” An early story of identity theft, assassination, and blackmail set in Manhattan during the shag-carpeted, amaretto-swilling 1970s, ”Shadow Trade” has a wonderful, rollicking vitality that makes you wonder why Furst ever let himself get stuck in World War II.