A Polish Jew, who is a reporter for Pravda, is asked by competing members of the Soviet secret police to carry out a few espionage-related operations in the lead-up to World War II.
Alan Furst is a master of atmosphere. Few authors, regardless of genre, have his sense of time and place. From the buildings to the clothes to the attitudes, he nails it all. It is the single greatest aspect of his writing that everyone comments on, and with good reason. Reading one of his earlier works is a master class in setting and certainly worth the cover price alone.
The plot of this novel, however, is rather ho-hum. It can mostly be summed up this way: a guy does some things. That is a bit harsh, because we do learn a lot about espionage during that time period, but it's not far off the truth. Furst, in his early works, didn't really have much idea how to tie his characters' actions together. It really isn't random what the reporter is doing in this story, but you'd never know that from the way Furst writes it. He gets it right in later books, but it's still an oversight in this one. The last one-third of the novel is better, but you sort of have to go through the first two-thirds wondering how it all relates. It just doesn't have that feeling of connection that other thriller writers automatically imbue their novels with.
As the second novel in a series, it's nice to see some of the crossover characters from his first one. It isn't a sequel at all, just a shared world with characters who happen to be on the same journey. Sometimes these secondary characters even outshine the main ones, but that's part of the fun of reading his books.
For people new to reading Furst, I wouldn't really recommend this one to start with. It is easily his most quotable one, and the invasion of Poland is really well done, but it's just too different from his others. I'd rate it 3 1/3 stars--3 for the first two-thirds, and 4 for the last one-third. He found his stride by book four, The World at Night, so that's where I'd start. Then read, in any order, through to book nine, The Foreign Correspondent. After that you can continue on or else to back to book one. The quality of book 12, Mission to Paris, and onward is pretty atrocious, though, so I wouldn't recommend those.
Published Jan. 8, 2002 by Random House Trade Paperbacks.