In Jonathan Rabb's "The Second Son," a Berlin police detective, Nikolai Hoffner, is cashiered from his post — circa 1936 — by the Nazis because he is half-Jewish. Undaunted, he hies off to Spain in search of a son missing in the early days of that country's civil war. The lad is ostensibly a newsreel photographer but is actually a spy in search of guns the Germans are running into Iberia.
The author of the well-received novels "Shadow and Light" and "Rosa," Rabb gives readers a premise that is as good as any, and Nikolai is soon traveling up and down the Spanish peninsula, accompanied by Mila, a beauteous doctor, who conveniently appears in the novel's early pages. In the course of their travels, they encounter many vaguely menacing figures, though few of them do much more than glower at them. Many cigarettes are smoked in the course of these meetings, and you can conveniently identify the bad guys by their habit of exhaling through their nostrils.
Their pursuit is also marked by their difficulties in finding decent rooms and square meals, and it peters out in an undramatic, unsatisfying conclusion. Mostly, these travels are the occasion for a lot of reflections ("There is a kind of madness that lives on the plains of La Mancha") that often don't make much sense.
The book is more of a thriller without thrills, and its flaws can be connected, perhaps, to the successful example of a writer such as Alan Furst, who weaves a mood of menace out of his deft, economical descriptions while providing a subtle pulse of suspense and embedding larger historical events within his intricate narratives. You can't really blame writers such as Rabb for aspiring to emulate a writer of this quality.
Most thriller writers aspire above the humble station that the literary world routinely assigns them — especially if their books have been critically welcomed, as Rabb's have been. There's nothing wrong with that ambition. But there is also nothing wrong with honest craftsmanship, especially in an era in which so many novelists seem to shirk their obligations to create satisfying, even surprising narratives.
It's true we don't always want to be on the edge of our easy chairs when we're just reading for fun. But espionage stories are not for nothing called "thrillers." They need to worry us by putting their protagonists suspensefully, menacingly in harm's way. If they fail to fulfill that basic convention, all the other virtues to which they reach will fall short.
Schickel is the author, most recently, of "Conversations With Scorsese."