E. M. DeHaan, captain of a Dutch tramp freighter, likes to read "adventure stories with intellectual heroes," books by Conrad, Stendhal, and Lawrence of Arabia. Surprisingly, he also likes to read the radiantly feminine novels of Colette because of the simplicity in her books, "a joyous shimmer, in the words and beyond, that coaxed him along . . . the perfect compass south to his north."
If DeHaan were living today, he would be very old, but he would certainly enjoy the novels of Alan Furst; in the most recent of them, "Dark Voyage," he would find himself as the unlikely protagonist, a thoughtful, self-contained man who has embarked on a series of dangerous adventures in the service of the Dutch Naval Intelligence Section -- which in the fateful year of 1941 was in exile in London. "In the North Atlantic, and everywhere in Europe, all sorts of people had their lives in their hands that night but there was always room for one more, and as to who would see the end of the war and who wouldn't, that was up to the stars." DeHaan's missions require disguising his steamer as a vessel from neutral Spain so that he can deliver military cargos to destinations in the Mediterranean and the Baltic no Dutch ship could reach. There is more than one mission here, more than one dark voyage. Along the way he meets spies, spymasters, refugees, a Soviet journalist on the run, and, of course, ruthless Nazis. And he listens to recordings of chamber music by Mozart.
There is a lot of risk in his story, and exciting action placed in context by DeHaan's earnest, unpretentious reflections. "He believed in the modern idea that it was good to talk about bad experiences but now he saw it wasn't really so, not for him."
Repeatedly some unexpected, unpredictable, absurdist, and thoroughly convincing detail sets the dark atmosphere ashimmer. A courier, ordered to destroy documents by flushing them or burning them, tries both -- and winds up setting the toilet seat afire. The first mate finds 10 reels of the film "Footlight Parade" "with Jams Cagni/Jone Blondl" for sale in a souk in Tangiers; the polyglot crew watches the Busby Berkeley frivolities as the ship makes for Lisbon and the next rendezvous.
"Dark Voyage" is the eighth of Furst's moody novels about the beginnings of World War II, and the first primarily set on the sea; before arriving at a Dutchman, he focused mostly on figures from Central Europe and France. Sometimes characters from his earlier novels have intersected with people in later ones, and the fictional Brasserie Heininger in Paris figures in all of them, including this one, a symbol of a changing world. In a flashback, DeHaan and his French girlfriend, Arlette, begin what they know will be their last evening together with dinner there.
Over the years, Furst has refined detail and focus; the story of DeHaan would've been a single thread in one of the earlier books. Uneasy about writing about women, love, and sex in the earlier books, now Furst is more comfortable, although the story of DeHaan's developing relationship with a passenger he has reluctantly taken aboard is not perhaps the most convincing romance Furst has offered his readers. Or maybe it is -- at first, DeHaan sees nothing in her but an irritant. And a rather strange development in his new clarity of focus is an infatuation with fragmentary sentences.
But the best qualities of Furst -- the texture of time and place; the subtleties of shading, so different from the blunt black and white of most movies about World War II; the thrilling bursts of action punctuating pages of waiting and planning; the compassion for human weakness; the enveloping ordinariness of dread; the streak of anarchic humor; the nobility and power of his ordinary and powerless people -- continue to ripen and deepen in "Dark Voyage."
The same first mate who found "Footlight Parade" makes a joke when he refers to the "J-40 adaptor," "an old navy story: a small steel box with a handle, nobody knew what it was for, eventually a cook put a carrot in it and cranked the handle and it came out the other end shaped like a tulip."
Someone is always entering an Alan Furst novel and emerging as something different -- like a hero.