The World At Night

Andrew Ross reviews "The World at Night" by Alan Furst.

Published June 26, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

Alan Furst, a former reporter for the International Herald Tribune, had carved an excellent niche for himself in the spy/mystery genre. Beginning with "Night Soldiers" in 1988, then with "Dark Star" in 1991, and finally with last year's "The Polish Officer," Furst brought a rich, empathetic imagination, vivid writing and a scholar's eye for historical authenticity to the derring-do of Soviet espionage in the 1930s and World War II. His heroes -- a Bulgarian villager, a Jewish correspondent for Pravda, a Polish cartographer-turned-resistance-officer -- were thoughtful and ambivalent; pawns, like Le Carri's characters, struggling to survive in the great game of politics and deceit.

"The World at Night," unfortunately, represents a great falling off for this gifted novelist. The era is the same, and the setting -- Paris in 1940 -- is one he has recreated with skill in his previous books. This time, however, the central character is a Frenchman, Jean Casson, a bourgeois film producer who would just as soon continue his life of bedding women and supping at various bistros as if the Occupation were a mere inconvenience. (This sentiment was apparently shared by the majority of the French at the time.) Ah, but as fate would have it, he falls in love, and he also gets a conscience. And, well, you know...

Making the rather feeble plot line worse is the disinterest one feels in Casson and the faux worldly characters around him who, when they are not giving us a picture postcard tour of gay-but-mournful Paree, are engaged in remorselessly banal dialogue. There are shafts of action and excitement, but, oh boy, are they few and far between. Plodding through the book -- "8:30. A second bottle of wine. Scarlatti from the BBC. The room smelled like smoke, wine, and perfume. 'Did you know,' she said, 'I made a movie in Finland?' 'In Finnish?' 'No, they dubbed it later' " -- a sense of panic mounts: Nothing is actually going to happen! Eventually something does, sort of. But we are long past caring, left to wonder if somehow an impostor has taken over Furst's word processor.

By Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

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