Download Dark Voyage Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Dark Voyage Summary

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Readers of Alan Furst's historical novels know exactly what to expect: Europe on the brink of World War II or in the early throes of conflict, smoke-filled cafés and bleak border checkpoints, men and women seeking their creature comforts on ever-tightening budgets, and an ordinary person on an extraordinary mission. New Criterion has called Furst “a master of atmospherics …at his best when fiddling the high note of nostalgia, describing a scene that has vanished and will never reappear.” His readers expect atmosphere from his tales of espionage as surely as wine connoisseurs expect a certain bouquet from a favorite vintage, and they are seldom disappointed. Beginning with Night Soldiers (1988), Furst has delivered vintage atmosphere in nine novels about the business of espionage. In April, 1941, when Dark Voyage begins, England and its allies have lost nearly sixteen hundred merchant vessels to attacks by Axis planes and ships. The naval intelligence office of Holland, secretly operating in London after Holland's official surrender to Germany, asks Dutch shipping companies to help limit the losses. The owners of the tramp freighter Noordendam agree to assist and urge the experienced captain, Eric DeHaan, to accept a commission in the Royal Dutch Navy and take orders from Dutch intelligence. Intensely patriotic, even romantic, DeHaan readily agrees and begins reporting to Marius Hoek, head of Dutch intelligence in North Africa. DeHaan soon realizes that he is putting his ship and crew at risk. His first assignment is to repaint the Noordendam and disguise it as the Santa Rosa, a merchant vessel of officially neutral Spain. Under the Spanish flag, he runs small missions in the Mediterranean Sea, between Tangier and Alexandria, at a time when German forces are massing on Crete. He carries supplies to Lisbon, in officially neutral Portugal. Then, on his most dangerous mission, he sails north to enter the dangerous waters of the Baltic Sea. The new cover is compromised when Mr. Brown, a shadowy British spymaster, accidentally gets news of the real Santa Rosa, put out of service in South America. Brown realizes that DeHaan is most likely an agent in the spy game. Confronting DeHann, he manages to place an agent of his on the ship as it heads toward Sweden. The agent, who is escaping from Nazi oppression, joins the other passenger, a Russian journalist fleeing Soviet operatives, making the freighter a microcosm of hopes and fears in the early war years. Like the ship's surgeon, a Jewish medical student forced to flee his German university, like the Noordendam’s skeleton crew, and like all right-thinking characters in Furst's novels, they are prepared to take risks and make sacrifices in order to defeat Adolf Hitler. The story progresses slowly, in the novel's four sections, as DeHaan and the Noordendam move sail under the Spanish flag, make contacts in the Mediterranean, enter Europe, and sail to the Baltic Sea. As they enter the Baltic, where German forces are fully in control, DeHaan and his crew know that they are entering the belly of the beast. In flying the Spanish flag but carrying only their original Dutch papers, they know that they are vulnerable. They have small successes, helping British commandos here, eluding capture there, but sense that their time is limited as they move eastward toward their final destination. At barely half the length of Night Soldiers, Dark Voyage shows a growing tendency to minimalism: a tendency to give a few excerpts from a conversation or a few details of an event and to let readers draw their own inferences. Furst's minimalism has two effects. It helps readers to recognize that the characters represent the many thousands of simple people whose lives were made dramatic by the events of World War II. However, it leaves all the characters so little defined, with the single exception of DeHaan, that some reviewers—notably The Economist's—have felt little sympathy for them. Indeed, it is...

(The entire section is 1,272 words.)