Furst, Alan. Dark Voyage.

NY: Random House, 2004.

This is a very well told and very affecting story of the life and death of a Dutch tramp freighter in the early days of World War II. It’s April 1941 and Germany has occupied nearly all of Europe. Dutchman Eric DeHaan, at sea all his life, citizen of a seagoing and mercantile nation, is captain of the Noordendam. His crew is made up of men from everywhere — Poland, Greece, Egypt, Spain — and none of them can go home again.

Then, in the port of Tangier, he meets with the exiled head of the small company that owns his ship and with the local representative of a branch of the British Secret Service. The Noordendam is joining the war as an undercover Spanish freighter called the Santa Rosa, carrying commandos on her first not entirely successful mission and then transporting a load of very secret HF/DF equipment from neutral Portugal up into the Baltic. And then things get interesting when they run into a Germany coastal patrol boat. All of this is told in the laconic voice of a determined but thoroughly non-military Dutchman who doesn’t know that anything his ship — and his terrified but equally determined civilian crew — can do will really make a difference, but they have to try. DeHaan and his men are the real heroes of the War against Hitler. There will be no medals but without people like them, just doing their day-to-day jobs and taking horrific chances under terrible conditions, the Allies might well have lost the war. The story includes a large number of supporting players, turning up often for only a few pages, then wandering offstage again — unprepossessing secret agents, refugee Jews (one of whom becomes the ship’s medical officer), Spanish Republicans, Moroccan entrepreneurs, even a ballet company fleeing the German attack on Latvia. In fact, the way Furst loads the narrative with such truly ordinary people makes all the difference to the story. I know some reviewers have complained about this book because they liked Furst’s earlier land-based spy stories and this one, set at sea, was . . . “different.” Since it’s only the second book I’ve read by this author, I have little to compare it to. Being a fan of sea stories more than spy novels per se, I can only say that it’s an excellent piece of work.

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