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by Alan Furst
Random House, July 2002
437 pages
ISBN: 0375759999

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Powerful! Having heard much of Alan Furst, I bought this as my first of his novels. He writes especially of the spying aspects of World War II and its immediate pre-war history. Although I enjoyed the book tremendously, I should note that I did not care for the ending, which I think was forced, quite possibly for commercial success. But this ending is quick and only a very small part of what is otherwise a superb, although deep and dark, story.

Andre Szara is a Polish Jew with Soviet citizenship working as a reporter for the Soviet news agency TASS. He is co-opted by the NKVD, a predecessor of the KGB, into the Soviet Intelligence Service. In his travels, activities, and thoughts, we see the tug of war between Hitler and Stalin for Europe. Both men are all powerful, unpredictable, cruel almost beyond belief, and paranoid. They are also anti-semitic, Hitler overtly and Stalin more hidden.

We see more of the Soviet side first. For the slightest reason or suspicion, the Soviets turned on their own operatives and executed them. As one hatchetman explains to Szara, they usually kill those associated with the victim, too, but Szara seemed to have protection from on high. Szara is sent to Paris, where under cover of TASS, he heads up a Soviet spy network and gets credit for recruiting the Jewish owner of a large factory in Berlin. But things in the espionage business are seldom what they seem (or as Gilbert and Sullivan had it, "skim milk masquerades as cream"), and it's difficult to know just who is the beneficiary of this or that espionage operation.

He falls in love with a Berlin woman, and later with a Russian actress living in Germany. He is sought out by a wealthy French Jew to conduct a humanitarian mission, which could have been the kind of end his Soviet masters would want, but he acts without their knowledge. Then he becomes a wanderer and through his eyes we see the terror of being a Nazi victim.

The book, especially the first half, read to me like a primer in espionage, and is decided the most realistic of spy novels that I've read. Szara was a case officer for the Soviets just as I was a case officer for CIA, and in my readings during my early years with CIA, I became acquainted with much of the terminology used in this book, terminology which has since become such public knowledge that it no longer seems strange, but it was strange at one time; such as wet affairs (murder), Rote Kapelle (a famous Soviet spy network), and OT Pads (a cipher method). There is mention of General Kravitsky, a Soviet defector, although since the book takes place in the 1930 there could be no mention of his end in the 1940s, when he "fell" to his death from the Raleigh Hotel in Washington, DC, during a time when he was testifying before a Congressional committee.

Furst has a powerful way of writing, very direct, but then his subject is so powerful that no grand phraseology is needed. He is extremely well read into his subject and period. He has Szara, as a writer, recall "Lenin's sly dictum that 'paper will stand for anything you write on it,'" which parallels Goebbels concept of propaganda that any lie repeated enough can become believable. He describes an Englishman, but fails to give attribution, in words once written by Lady Caroline Lamb about Lord Byron, "mad, bad, and dangerous to know." He points out that in some respects intelligence people of all sides have more in common with each other than with the non-initiated on their own side. In what I would call "gallows oblige," he has a Polish intelligence officer tell Szara, that if he were not about to lose his country to the Germans, "I would recruit you to the very corner of hell simply for the pleasure of your company." And he refers humourously to Goebbels trying to justify Germany going to war with nearby countries because these countries were mean to their citizens of German origin, Goebbels saying that the foreign Germans "suffered horribly ... because they retained their language and customs and dress in the midst of alien cultures and nobody liked them, being principally envious of their success." Szara comments, "One could call them blond Jews."

In another place the author has Szara's Russian actress lady love in her garden reading Babel's RED CAVALRY. Those few words instantly brought to my mind the powerful writing of Isaac Babel, who ironically was murdered in 1940 by the Soviet secret police, only a year after this fictional scene took place, "And then I trampled on Nikitinksky, my master. I trampled on him for an hour, or more than an hour, and during that time I got to know him and his life. Shooting -- in my opinion -- is just a way of getting rid of a fellow, to shoot him is to pardon him, and a vile compromise with yourself: with shooting you don't get to a man's soul, where it is in him and how it shows itself. But usually I don't spare myself, usually I trample my enemy for an hour or more than an hour, I want to find out about the life, what it's like with us." I can't say that Furst's writing is this powerful, but he has his moments.

I recommend this book without reservation to anyone who wants to read more on how espionage has been conducted in the 20th century. To supplement it, though, I would recommend two non-fiction books. First, Alexander Foote's HANDBOOK FOR SPIES, which in spite of its title reads like an exotic and suspenseful novel. That was my Bible in my early training. I was fascinated with one of the most famous spies of them all, a man known to Foote only as "Lucy." How I wanted to know who Lucy was. And then years later I came across a book by Anthony Read & David Fisher, OPERATION LUCY, and then I knew. Fascinating! Powerful!

Reviewer's Note: DARK STAR was originally published in hardcover by Houghton Mifflin in 1991

Reviewed by Eugene Aubrey Stratton, October 2003

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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