A Thriller for Its Time : DARK STAR, <i> By Alan Furst (Houghton Mifflin: $21.95; 417 pp.)</i>

<i> Dryansky, a novelist, is the European editor of Conde Nast Traveler</i>

The 20th Century is thundering toward an end; under what file name should we store it in history? If one word would indeed do, the word would be crime .

Dostoevsky and Conrad saw it coming. The people who would do the important things would be the violators of a long-battered tradition of decency. Modernism did not just mean creating aesthetic principles from scratch. It had its dark counterpart in the criminal ideologies: communism, fascism, Nazism--criminal because no matter what utopia they preached, violation of our old system of morals was built into the modus operandi.

We are not done with the evil of bloody ideals, but this century knew the worst of it in the ‘30s and ‘40s, the period of hubris in which Alan Furst’s rich novel in the form of a thriller, “Dark Star,” is set.

Aptly, the scene is Europe, where ultimately two psychopaths, Hitler and Stalin, turned the evil structures that put them in power into weapons for a cataclysmic personal wrestle with God of Our Fathers. And, luckily for everyone else, with each other as well.


In his sixth novel, Furst goes resolutely to the heart of such things: the important time, the right places and the Chosen People. The Jew was in the middle of it all. In Western Europe, with the 19th Century--whose operative nouns were money and machinery-- the Jew came out of the ghetto and into the mainstream of civilization. Jews have believed, through all disaster, in the pursuit of happiness on Earth. The growth of capitalism--whose great prerequisite was individual freedom--allowed them some of the most brilliant and most dangerously conspicuous satisfactions of that pursuit. When times turned hard in the West, envy of that success fueled the ambitions of Nazism.

In backward Eastern Europe, in particular the Russian Empire, while capitalism was trying hard to poke its way out of the mud of feudalism, Jews were kept mainly out of the mainstream of things. Their detachment from the greater life of a place, Furst intriguingly contends, drove many of them to the further abstraction of communist ideology. When history offered them a chance to take command of the confusion of revolutionary Russia, they were doomed to fail by their lack of contact with reality.

Furst’s hero, the Jewish Soviet journalist Andre Szara, lived originally, Furst points out, “in a kind of dream world, a mythical country where idealistic, intellectual Jews actually ran things, quite literally a country of the mind. Theories failed, peasants died, the land itself dried up in despair. Still they worked twenty hours a day and swore they had the answer.

“It could not last. Who were these people . . . with little beards and eyeglasses who spoke French down their big noses and read books? asked Stalin. And all the little Stalins answered: We were wondering that very thing, only nobody wanted to say it out loud.

At the Stalinist purge trials of the ‘30s, it would be said out loud. Jews were dangerously idealistic in the eyes of the Little Father, and they were impediments in his love-hate dealings with the Fuehrer. Their idealism was imbued with some fundamentals of Western decency, which communism, in contrast with Nazism, thought it could assume and redirect.

But in the end, it is fair to say that many of the Jewish Bolsheviks acted evilly, spilling even offering their own lives in the name of an empty abstraction whose promises were bitterly contradicted by reality. The NKVD, dreaded predecessor of the KGB, was rife with Jews. Stalin’s Georgian gang had to cut down the Jewish Khvost , or clan, in the NKVD to ensure his power.

The clash between these clans, an uneven match, fuels the plot of “Dark Star.” Furst’s hero is a star hack journalist sucked into a murderous maelstrom of espionage and counterespionage from the moment he is assigned to pick up, in a handsome Old World valise, the evidence that Stalin had been a vicious spy for the Okhrana , the Czar’s secret service.

From a railway baggage room in Prague, we move through the capitals and countryside of much of Europe during the ‘30s, a rotten decade about to burst like a boil. Prague, Paris, Berlin, Brussels . . . Furst keeps us rushing through the immediate story while painting, with brilliant detail and sure sweep, the Big Picture, taking us, near the very end, to Poland in the middle of the Nazi Blitzkrieg.

Furst’s novel rings true for its voice as well as its imagery. As a stylist, he can be plain but not common. Here is how he describes a photograph of an anti-Nazi German general:

“A man in his late sixties, Szara thought. Fleshless, ascetic face above a bald head, deep care lines, mouth a single brief line. Yet the look in his eyes told a slightly different story. At some point, in a life that left his face like stone, something had amused him. Permanently.”

The photo sits in the bedroom of Nadia, a Russian actress-spy who is the ultimate object of Szara’s love and the proof, as well, of Furst’s skill at painting vivid characters.

We tend to think of “thriller” as a less-serious subcategory of fiction. Yet if crime is the name of our era, then “thriller” probably is its most serious objective correlative, just as the Bildungsroman suited the forward vision of the 18th Century, and just as social realism matched the upheavals of the industrial 19th. But there are thrillers and there are thrillers.

For a reader looking for an airplane book whose energy is in bare plot, Furst’s novel falls somewhat short of its mark. The inciting incident--Szara’s being sent for the evidence because he was qualified as a journalist to divulge it to the world--is implausible, and the book ends rather softly for the genre.

But “Dark Star” is a page-churner of the best sort, despite those flaws and despite several small errors in Furst’s astonishing research (the anachronism, for example, of referring frequently to Le Monde, a newspaper that did not exist before 1944). In a time when publishing houses paid editors to edit and not to do deals, the little errors would have been caught. They do not do much harm to Furst’s talent, which brings to mind Robert Stone’s: the power to create, in the finest focus, a compelling small world that expands without loss.

Here is a thriller more deeply satisfying than much of the non-thrilling “serious fiction” around today.