Dark Voyage by Alan Furst
Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)
In his eighth historical espionage thriller, Furst departs from his usual place and time of Europe between the wars. Nor does he focus on typical spies. In this one, the time is during WWII, April to June 1941 to be exact. The setting is at sea on a spy ship, the Dutch tramp freighter Noordendam. The hero is a stoical captain, Erik DeHaan.
DeHaan has been recruited into naval intelligence by three co-nationals, the owner of the Noordendam, a businessman, and a female artist. The Noordendam is re-painted, put under the control of the British intelligence service (which office is unclear to DeHaan), and sent out on a mission both in convoy and on its own, both as the Noordendam and the Santa Rosa. It lands commandos in Tunisia and explosives in Crete. It negotiates German defenses in the Baltic in order to transport radio equipment to listen in traffic to and from German submarines.
DeHaan is a classic Furstian protagonist. That is, sensitive and professionally capable, he brings his emotional and professional intelligence to fight, because that is what an ordinary person would do, fight when fight we must.
The other characters are regular folks too, doing what they can to fight in the hope that their small contribution will add to the huge effort to eliminate the Fascist threat, whether on the left or the right. Fleeing right extremism are Greek deserters, Spanish Republicans, and a veteran Ukrainian Jewish spy. A female Soviet maritime reporter is fleeing the Russian spies that want to recruit her for dirty work.
One flaw. The second half of the novel is set on the Baltic Sea near Malmö, Sweden, in the first 20 days of June, heading up to the Summer Solstice. Recalling how far north this setting is and the time of the year, readers will recall there is not quite 24 hours of daylight. When I lived in Riga, Latvia (1994-97), the sun didn’t set until close to 11:30 p.m. It didn’t get dark until 1:00 a.m. when it didn’t get “darkest before the dawn” kind of dark either. Then at about 1:00 a.m., it started to lighten up again. Furst does not mention one word about this phenomenon.
This flaw is balanced by the simple fact that Furst sets the climax in the Latvian port of Liepāja. Furst gets points in my book for mentioning Latvia at all, much less a little-known place such as Liepāja. The Russians and Germans wanted to occupy Latvia for the possession of Riga and the ice-free port of Liepāja, which the Russians wanted so secret they didn’t even put it on maps.
Furst’s writing style tends to the run-on sentence, which gives an effective herky-jerkiness to the exposition. We readers never know what going to happen next.