DARK VOYAGE

By Alan Furst

Random House. 256 pp. $24.95

It's odd but interesting that Alan Furst, an American, writes historical novels set in and around Europe in the early years of World War II, the period before his own country was drawn into that awful conflict. Precisely why he has chosen this moment as the setting for so much of his work is unclear, but there can be no doubt that he knows it well and portrays it with authority and confidence. The last time I reviewed one of his novels -- "The World at Night," eight years ago -- he seemed to me stronger on atmosphere than on plot, but he has certainly overcome that difficulty in "Dark Voyage," which positively bristles with plot, characters and atmosphere.

Its protagonist is Eric DeHaan, a 41-year-old Dutchman who is captain of the Noordendam, a tramp freighter owned by the Netherlands Hyperion Line. The novel opens at the end of April 1941, with the ship berthed at Tangier. DeHaan has small appetite for chitchat with strangers but has little choice except to accept a dinner invitation with the owner of the line and other people he does not know. There he is inducted into the Royal Dutch Navy, given the rank of lieutenant commander and set off on the first of three missions in the Allied service.

By this point in the war, the Netherlands has been overrun by Nazi Germany and is considered a belligerent, albeit a mostly toothless one. To make the Noordendam as inconspicuous as possible, it is repainted and sent forth as "the Santa Rosa, of the Compania Naviera Cardenas Sociedad Anonima, with offices on the Gran Via in Valencia," since "as a ship steaming under a Spanish, a neutral, flag, she could go anywhere. In theory." It is a gamble, but:

"Still, not such a wild bet. The Noordendam and the Santa Rosa were, if not twins, at least sisters. They were typical tramp freighters . . . built around 1920, five thousand gross tons, some four hundred feet long and fifty-eight wide, draft of twenty-five feet, single funnel, derricks fore and aft, blunt in the bow, round in the stern, carrying nine thousand tons of cargo -- enough to fill three hundred boxcars -- with a top speed of eleven knots. On a fair day with a decent sea. They were similar to the eye, and not unlike a thousand others."

The refitted and rechristened ship's three missions take it to the Mediterranean, to Crete and to the Baltic. For a time it is in the service of Dutch intelligence, for a time in that of the British Naval Intelligence Division. Its assignments are small and seemingly meaningless -- to British forces on Crete, for example, it delivers "land mines, 75-millimeter tank shells, .303 ammunition, then the bombs, 250- and 500-pounders," with the aim of bolstering the tenuous British presence on that small island -- but a point that Furst drives home in "Dark Voyage," as in most of his seven previous novels, is that wars are won more by the steady accumulation of small victories than by the glamour of great triumphs.

For DeHaan, these assignments are a decidedly mixed blessing. On the one hand, he has wanted to do his patriotic duty, all the more so since the German occupation of the Netherlands has left his mother and sister in uncertain, as well as unknown, circumstances. On the other hand, he knows the limitations of his ship and its crew, and understands that every move is taken at great risk. This is not merely because a merchant ship can do only so much as a man-of-war but also because intelligence agents are everywhere, ferreting out information and acting on it. As he is told by a mysterious character in Tangier who plays a central role in his new life:

"I have to tell you, Captain, that you should be careful, in this city. Because I believe they are in the early stages of knowing about us. Perhaps just bits and pieces, at the moment, a few papers on a desk somewhere and there are, no doubt, more pressing papers on that desk, but someone is working on it, and, when he's satisfied, something will be done, and done quickly, and there won't be time for discussion."

As DeHaan proceeds along the path that this gentleman correctly predicts, his life becomes steadily more complicated. The Noordendam takes on passengers DeHaan hadn't bargained for: Shtern, a young Jewish medical student desperate for money to support his family, who hires on as ship's doctor; Kolb, a cynical spy to whom life has taught "one lesson: trust nobody"; Maria Bromen, a Russian maritime journalist writing for Soviet and communist publications, who wants to escape to something approximating freedom. Rather predictably, Maria brings aboard the complications and temptations attendant to being the only woman on the ship, but Furst handles these with skill and a good deal of sensitivity.

He does a particularly good job with DeHaan, who is a complex, interesting, decent man. He likes women, and they find him attractive, but "his life with women had always been a victim of his life at sea -- brief affairs recollected at length. Occasionally close to mercenary -- gifts, whatnot -- and sometimes passionate, but typically on the great plain that lay between." He has been at sea since he was 16 years old, and he feels more at home there than any place on land. He's steady, patient, resourceful, skeptical, quietly humorous, no hero but no coward, either. His higgledy-piggledy crew is loyal, and he regards it with affection: "Kovacz, Amado and his mates, Shtern, Xanos the Greek soldier, his German communists, all of them really, fugitives in one way or another, set to wandering the world. Always room for one more on the good ship Noordendam."

As that ship lumbers along toward its inevitable confrontation with the enemy, Furst keeps the tension level high without resorting to cheap melodrama. "Dark Voyage" has the ingredients of several genres -- the mystery, the historical novel, the espionage thriller, the romance -- but it rises above all of them. From time to time Furst's prose strains a little, with excessively short sentences that don't pack as much punch as he obviously wants them to, but mostly he writes cleanly and unobtrusively. He's a serious writer, and his novels remind us that these days a great deal of exceptionally good American writing is being done in what the literati dismiss as "popular" fiction.