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I reviewed Alan Furst's DARK STAR for www.reviewingtheevidence.com in October 2003 and called it powerful. Furst is the only novelist I know of who writes about espionage the way it really is.
The cover flap compares him with Graham Greene and Eric Ambler, two authors I have enjoyed very much, but I disagree on the comparison. Furst writes as capably as these two, but he also gets into the guts of espionage much more than they do. The closest to it I've read in novels is John LeCarre's THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD. But even there Furst's tone is darker, because espionage and its related clandestine operations are a most murky occupation. It has to be because it deals with miasmic people who reject all ten of the Commandments.
No, the real close images for RED GOLD are Arthur Koestler's non-fictional THE SCUM OF THE EARTH and, more for general than particular background, DARKNESS AT NOON, two books that are not read as much today as they should be. Alexander Foote's non-fictional HANDBOOK FOR SPIES, which I highly recommended in my review of DARK STAR, also must have been read by Furst, and rightly so. Anyone writing about Communist espionage should read it. As in Foote's book Furst correctly refers to the Soviet headquarters for worldwide espionage as the Center, and he also has a principal character in RED GOLD named Weiss, the name of one of the major players in HANDBOOK FOR SPIES.
The protagonist of RED GOLD is Jean Claude Casson, a Frenchman once a known movie producer, now a fugitive from the Germans, who occupied northern France less than a year after the beginning of World War II. This is Casson's second appearance in a Furst novel, the earlier one being THE WORLD AT NIGHT.
Imagine yourself not as one of the Ten Most Wanted, but as one of thousands against whom the Germans have suspicions. Without money, there is almost no place to turn. Yet Paris and the rest of the country, including the southern part, Vichy France, that the Germans leave under the control of Marshal Petain and his government of collaborators, are all teeming with anti-German groups.
The Communists, taking orders from the Center in the USSR, are the most powerful, but the Gaullists, owing allegiance to the Narcissist General in London, are also strong. Meanwhile in Vichy working with the Germans by day, and sponsoring operations against them by night, a French officers clique plays its own game. All have their eyes on the day when the Germans will be defeated so their faction can take over, a time that might have taken 20 years, but after the Americans get in the war, some think it will be shortened to only two.
The existence of so many underground counter fighters is part of Casson's problem, because the Germans fight their threat on a number basis. When the Communists methodically assassinate German officers, the Germans go after everyone. After an abortive attempt on the life of one officer, the Germans deport to Germany 1000 Jewish doctors and lawyers as reprisal. Further, friends of one political persuasion find it difficult to help friends for fear that they might be of some opposing politics. No one trusts anyone, and people are murdered just for associating with someone under suspicion by the Germans or some anti-faction or another.
So Casson goes from fleabag hotel to ptomaine-prone restaurant to pawn shop and to low-paying insecure work. About the only thing that is cheap is sex, and Casson has his share of women, but finds himself emotionally tied to one he learns is a Jew, and he must get her out of France.
He has been recruited by a French officer under whom he once served. The officers want to buy co-operation from the Communists, and Casson becomes a ping pong ball between them. The Center wants to kill two of their loyal helpers, one being Casson, and the local party members in a rare negotiation gets the assassinations reduced to one, Casson surviving. After hectic trips from Paris to the Mediterranean, Casson does his part, and then waits to see what will come next.
The scenes are all painted in the most morbid colors. Only hope exists for the possibility of a redeemed future, which may never come because of living in a hopeless present. Yet the reader benefits greatly by having a screen on a world that is gone, for now, but is always subject to reappearing.
If we read to understand human character more, we want the full spectrum, and this novel gives us the lower end of the prism. Furst leads us through this jungle on a trail of conflicts, some small, some large, and we cannot help ourselves but read further to the finish. He knows his material so thoroughly that we experience it through him. Furst is a true master of his art.
PS: RED GOLD is not at all like a Rex Stout novel, yet the ending is strangely reminiscent of THE DOORBELL RANG.
Reviewed by Eugene Aubrey Stratton, January 2005
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