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A Bit Too Espisodic and Thin
on 8 January 2006
Furst's series of WWII-era espionage novels tend to eschew traditional narrative in favor of a series of episodes sharing a similar claustrophobic atmosphere in which a grim, reluctant hero must complete some task. The dual heroes of this latest (his eighth) is an aging Dutch tramp freighter and its dour Captain Eric DeHaan. The ship and its crew has been wandering the ports of the world for a year, ever since the Germans occupied Holland in May, 1940. Now, the exiled Dutch government in London has decided to allow the Dutch civilian fleet to be seconded to the British Navy for special operations. To his own fatalistic bemusement the skeptical DeHaan is secretly made a Captain in Royal Dutch Navy. His ship is then repainted, reflagged, and renamed at sea -- reemerging as a neutral Spanish freighter.
Among the crew or along for the ride is Furst's usual grab-bag of Europeans, including a Swiss spy for the British, Falangist Spaniards, anti-Nazi Germans, Jewish refugees, a Polish naval officer, and a female Russian journalist who becomes one of the captain's several bunkmates. The story follows the incognito vessel as it moves amongst the shadowy open ports such as Lisbon, Alexandria, and Tangiers performing various deeds for British intelligence. These episodes include dropping some commandos into North Africa, dropping some ammo off at Crete for the British troops there, before winding things up with a supply drop to the resistance in Sweden.
As usual, atmosphere simply drips from the pages. The freighter's dank smells and cramped cabins come alive as it creaks and groans its way through the story. As others have pointed out, although the book is stuffed with nautical details, they're not always correct, which is likely to irk those with maritime experience. And while the ship and ports are given loving treatment, the same cannot be said of the characters. Furst just doesn't spend enough time on them to make them truly come alive. This is especially true of Captain DeHaan, who should be the protagonist, but ends up a flat figure, suborned to the ship. The story Furst tells is certainly interesting an interesting one, highlighting the shadowy world of merchant shipping in the war, however it generally lacks the suspense one expects from him. It's also much more straightforward than usual, the plot proceeds from point to point without the moral complexities one usually finds in his work. It's not a bad book, just not great, and not as rich as others of his.