Random House, 2002, $24.95, 237 pages, ISBN 978-0-375-50574-1
It’s an undisputed fact that the Twentieth Century was the absolute bloodiest in human history. The Twentieth opened up with the Boer War, in which the British Empire asserted its sovereignty over South Africa at the expense of the white Afrikaans settlers and their German allies. In rapid succession came World War I, “the Great War,” as it was called back then, the Easter Rising in Ireland, the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the second Irish uprising and Civil War, the Spanish Civil War, World War II, Korea, the Chinese Revolution, Vietnam, the Balkans and Mid-East wars to close the century. The century also saw several genocides: the Soviet Union, Armenia, Cambodia, and China come to mind, as do innumerable nasty wars in Africa, Central and South America, Indonesia, the Philippines, Chechnya, Afghanistan and Iran to mention but a few.
With such a smorgasbord of wars, violence and mayhem to select from to write about, authors’ favorite topic is World War II. Tens of thousands of books have been written about it, as well as countless movies and many plays . . . yet that hasn’t diminished it’s allure. We continue to be fascinated by it, making WWII the ‘Big Daddy’ of all subjects of interest, in my opinion. And I hereby confess . . . heartily and publicly . . . to a lifelong interest in the Second World War
Why am I telling you all of this? Because I’ve found an author that I have personally overlooked who writes some of the best, most atmospheric WWII spy novels I’ve ever read. If you’re a lover of the black-and-white films of the era such as Casablanca, then the novels of Alan Furst are right up your alley. Furst, a New Yorker who lives out on the pea-patch end of Long Island and writes in a converted shed, produces some of the most elegant, spare and sophisticated spy novels since Eric Ambler and Graham Green . . . and they’re a helluva lot more fun to read than John LeCarré. Blood of Victory begins with the words:
“In 1939, as the armies of Europe mobilized for war, the British secret services undertook operations to impede the exportation of Romanian oil to Germany. They failed.”
“Then, in the autumn of 1948, they tried again.”
So begins the recruitment and mission of an expatriate Russian writer named I.A. Serebin; who’s been through four wars in his life; a man who has no desire to live through a fifth one in Nazi-occupied Paris. The novel begins in 1940. Serebin is on a tramp steamer, sailing on the Black Sea from Odessa, USSR to Istanbul, Turkey where he’s hoping to live for a while, away from the Nazi’s; whom he detests, they’re overrunning Europe and bombing London every night in preparation for an invasion. Soon he’s recruited as part of a team led by a Hungarian Count named Janos Polanyi, a master spy working for the British secret service. Their mission; to disrupt or destroy the Romanian oil fields. From the Balkans to Istanbul, Belgrade to St. Mortiz in Switzerland, Serebin pursues his mission despite the constant threat of capture, torture, and death at the hands of the Gestapo. The novel is tightly plotted, tense and atmospheric; it is filled with historical detail and WWII facts while all the time moving toward a suspenseful conclusion. Blood of Victory is the best and most thrilling spy story I’ve read in many years. Highly recommended.