NB: I don’t usually bother to note spoilers in this blog as I don’t have a problem with finding out endings before I read things (in fact I will often read the end of a crime novel at the beginning, so that with the tension of finding out whodunit relieved, I can enjoy actually reading the novel). But since I’m writing about thrillers here I think it’s fair to warn you that you shouldn’t read on if you mind being spoiled for part or all of Alan Furst’s Night soldiers, Philip Kerr’s If the dead rise not, or John le Carré’s The spy who came in from the cold.
The best thrillers are those in which the possibility of betrayal is constantly there, where neither side and none of the characters show themselves to be above or beyond betrayal. This is why Frederick Forsyth, with his clearly delineated bad guys facing off against good guys, doesn’t write as good thrillers as John le Carré, and why The spy who came in from the cold is le Carré’s most satisfying thriller, although not his most rewarding novel. In The spy who came in from the cold, even the most unequivocally sympathetic character, Liz Gold, is forced into betraying her lover, and at the cost of having her faith in the Communist Party equally betrayed. At one point George Smiley remarks that the mission of MI5 (and by implication, of the West in the Cold War) is to fight for the survival of the reasonable man, a point of view which is completely undermined by the fact that they are running an operation to defend the brutal former Nazi Mundt, a British double agent, from the suspicions of his Jewish underling Fiedler, who is shown at least to have an honest belief in the Communist project, and whose suspicions about Mundt are entirely accurate. Nothing in The spy who came in from the cold is not betrayable and in the end nobody is not betrayed.
Given this, the turbulent pre-war period of the 1930s seems to offer a backdrop richer in the potential for betrayal than even the Cold War period. Alan Furst’s thrillers of the period exploit this, playing off the antipathy between Nazi Germany and other European fascists on the one hand, and the Soviet Union of Stalin with its paranoia and purges on the other. In Night soldiers this is embodied in the central character Khristo Stoianev, a Bulgarian who sees his brother kicked to death by local fascists and accepts the escape route offered to him by the Russians, who recruit him into the NKVD and then send him to support the Republicans in the Spanish civil war. Once Stalin and Beria begin to purge the secret service Khristo must go underground, unable to trust even his closest colleagues as no one can predict who will be next for interrogation or show trial.
Alan Furst’s books are complex but not as plot-driven as some thrillers – having read a few, the plots tend to blur in the memory – but what I most enjoy about them is the social detail and the sense of place and time. In Night soldiers, the long passage when Khristo works as a waiter in Paris is wonderfully atmospheric, as is the end section when he travels slowly down the Danube back to the place of his birth.
Philip Kerr’s 1930s Berlin setting is similarly evocative. The Bernie Gunther novels take the noir forms of Raymond Chandler’s novels and transplant them to Nazi Berlin, keeping the vivid slang (although it has an authentically German sound to it) and the cynical tone of the narrator-hero, and adding an extra layer of menace and danger thanks to the exceptionally corrupt and terrifying atmosphere of pre-War Germany. Bernie Gunther is a hotel detective and former policeman who has been driven out of the police force due to his support for the Social Democrats and Weimar democracy; in If the dead rise not, he investigates two murders at once, which are related but not directly connected: the death of a businessman engaged in bidding for the contract to supply limestone for the Olympic stadium, and the second the death of a Jewish worker illegally employed in building that stadium. The two deaths each reflect the corruption endemic in the Nazi state, the first showing the high-level corruption in which Nazi officials were engaged and the second showing the horrifying results of the anti-Jewish employment laws.
The novel then jumps twenty years forward to Cuba in the 1950s (before the Cuban revolution) where Gunther, trying to escape his past, encounters the gangster responsible for the murder of the German businessman. This section was less successful; what is effective about the Bernie Gunther novels is the depiction of Berlin not as the gleaming efficient city the Nazis wanted it to be, but as a shabby, corrupt place in which all but the highest Nazis and officials can be bought, bullied or blackmailed, provided always that you have the means to do so (which, of course, the poorest and the Jewish generally do not). In that it reminded me of Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin which also highlights the shabbiness and meanness of Nazi-ruled Berlin in contrast with the absolutism of Nazi ideology. No one can be trusted; everyone will betray you, or can betray you. Both Night solders and If the dead rise not have that shifting, paranoid atmosphere of betrayal, but what makes them especially enjoyable is the sense of place and period which serves to heighten that atmosphere.