With his eighth novel about the shadow world of European espionage during WWII, Alan Furst bids to break out of cult status and into the bestseller mainstream. Dark Voyage combines Furst's skill at communicating the intricacies of spycraft and wartime bureaucracy with a maritime flair that feels thoroughly authentic.
On the Dutch freighter Noordendam, patriotic but pessimistic captain Eric DeHaan sails the coast of Europe from Spain to Russia, carrying out secret missions in a backwater of the naval war in 1941. DeHaan's laconic, world-weary air suits the novel's Casablanca-esque shenanigans. Pressed into the Dutch navy at a secret gentlemen's ceremony, the freighter captain takes orders and cargo from British naval intelligence chiefs; disguising his ship as a Spanish tramp steamer, he runs them to trouble spots and lost causes like Crete. A little success, however, brings him too many commissions and bosses for comfort. At the same time, DeHaan falls for a journalist trying to escape her Bolshevik masters, just as he's ordered to pick his way through the Baltic minefield to her Russian homeland, which is about to be invaded by Hitler's forces.
Some of Furst's landlocked action feels shopwornhe's done it before, and better, in previous novelsbut the sea refreshes both his language and his storytelling skills. He portrays the routine of shipboard life, the deference and camaraderie of the multinational crew, and the tension of boarding parties on the high seas with the facility and ease of Patrick O'Brien. The technology and politics are thoroughly 20th-century, but Furst's sailors still regard the petty nationalism of dry land with amusement and sadness. That essential independence, coupled with a page-turner of a climax right out of a pirate tale, make Furst's first naval venture a rousing success.