Book cover

Night Soldiers
by Alan Furst
Published: 2002
Read from: 12 Aug to 20 Aug
My rating: 🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟

If I were a character in this terrific novel, I would remember exactly who had recommended it to me, under what circumstances, and everything else about them. Alas, I am not, nor do I really wish I were, but as a story it has that kind of appeal, of making me think, what would I have done. The plot covers a dozen or so years, from Bulgaria in the early 1930s to America in 1946, and it concerns a group of NKVD recruits whose allegiance to one another is stronger than their allegiance to the NKVD. Or is it?

I found it utterly gripping, in that strange way in which although I have no direct experience or knowledge of any of it, the whole thing rings very true indeed. Alan Furst clearly knows his stuff. I had never thought of the origin of “fifth column” before, but there, in Madrid in 1936, the idea comes vividly to life, and if Furst’s account doesn't quite square with Wikipedia’s, I nevertheless far prefer the former.

Other things gave me pause. A crucial recruitment to the nascent OSS takes place in a diner on a Sunday, “surrounded by West End Avenue garment manufacturers taking their families out for brunch after temple”. On a Sunday? I’m sure Furst is correct, and yet ...

There’s a strange little anecdote, about the All Soviet Institute of Agronomy and O.A. Yanata, “the Ukranian botanist who had set up the first chair of Botany at the Academy of Sciences”.

He had proposed to the academy that certain chemicals could be used for the destruction of weeds. This was an entirely new concept, since the only known method to date was continual use of the hoe. A lengthy political investigation of Yanata was instituted, at the end of which he was accused of attempting to destroy all the harvests of the Soviet Union by the use of chemicals and was subsequently tried and shot.

Wikipedia does not know Yanata, though it knows his wife, and that led me to the man himself. The story, which first struck me as tongue in cheek and possibly metaphorical, was confirmed, except in the details of Yanata’s demise.

In general, I was far too busy reading and far too engrossed to make notes. The intricate plotting, the utterly believable fieldcraft, the way the streams fork and rejoin, the entire flow, all swept me along. The challenge now is to decide which of Furst’s books, in which many of these characters surface and resurface, to read next. Chronologically? By others’ ratings? A tough problem, to be sure.

And if you were the one who recommended Night Soldiers to me, please claim your bounty.

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I haven't read any Alan Furst but this one at least is now on my list. I had a spell of reading espionage/spying/double agent related books this year, many by Ben MacIntyre. I highly recommend his Agent Zigzag - a true story of an extraordinary character. The associated BBC documentary is on archive.org. https://archive.org/details/DoubleAgentTheEddieChapmanStory I also found 'Into the Lion's Mouth' by Larry Loftis a great read, it being the story of the real life spy, Dusko Popov who was allegedly the model for James Bond.

Bryan
1 month ago