Europe at Midnight: further up and further in

Book cover: Europe at Midnight - Dave Hutchinson (a train coming through a tunnel between two faces in profile)In a recognisably near future, countries have broken away from the EU, regions have declared themselves independent and even city blocks claim sovereign status. It’s a headache for bureaucrats – and the postal service – and a busy time to be a spy. Welcome back to fractured Europe.

Jim is an English secret service operative with the usual difficult marriage and a talent for navigating the awkward relationships with law enforcement and other agencies. He wouldn’t normally get called in for a stabbing on a bus to Finchley, but the victim demanded asylum. 

The victim, Rupert of Hentzau – not his real name, obviously – is a mystery. Once he’s patched up and secured in a safe house, his story of a parallel world is absurd, but someone on high is taking him seriously. Jim finds himself seconded to an investigative unit much concerned with railway lines and the obsessions of Victorian cartographers. 

Europe at Midnight is less a sequel to Europe in Autumn than a companion novel: the action takes place along the same timeframe, with occasional cross-over characters pointing up where we are relative to Rudi (who puts in a brief appearance towards the end). If I finished Autumn thinking woah WTF at the parallel worlds twist, but essentially clear on how the universe worked, I realised from the start of Midnight that I wasn’t clear at all.

Because Rupert is an intelligence officer from the University, a post-authoritarian state that appears to exist only as a number of academic faculties (and a security service to keep an eye on them). Hutchinson deftly builds his new world by deploying familiar tropes – dingy details about food quality; the horrors of the previous government and of the student revolution; the endless to do lists and lack of resources. And then he makes it feel uniquely English.

It’s a sort of jolly hockey sticks post-Communist dystopia, and for a while I thought the Community – the once-bucolic parallel world of an imaginary England, accessed by trains with irregular schedules and culverts that let you step around unseen corners – had been well and truly derailed. Rudi spent enough time in Europe in Autumn reflecting that any nation so concerned with guarding its borders was as keen to keep its own citizens in as keep others out, so this didn’t seem unreasonable. But no, we’ve just got properly meta now: the Community has a more dystopian world beyond it.

At this point I’ve got to take a step back and admire what Dave Hutchinson has done here. I mean – I wouldn’t have sat down one Tuesday and thought ‘hey, what the world needs is a Le Carré portal fantasy’, but that’s essentially what we’ve got and I’m utterly absorbed by it.

Like its predecessor, Europe at Midnight is unexpectedly charming. It shouldn’t be – it should be chilling. The creeping paranoia, the sweeping powers exercised by Jim in the ‘real’ world, Rupert’s frustrated slide from earnest investigation towards desperation and violence, the sly commentary on our own context – these aren’t comforting or cosy. But there’s an almost naïve quality to Rupert as he tries to navigate the sharp edges of his pocket universe – and then tries to deal with the shock of entering Europe – that’s irresistible.

I particularly liked the workmanlike tone, which lent the novel an unexpected intimacy. This may be a book about worlds manoeuvring for control, but it feels intensely personal: consequently, I was genuinely concerned for Jim (less so Rupert; sorry, Rupert) as political and commercial interests closed in. This is the hard yard of espionage, not a Bond caper, focused on the cost of the way of life, the difficult trade-offs, impossible decisions and knife-edge of terror of living undercover amongst psychopaths. It’s familiar ground, beautifully redrawn within the context of this fascinating fractured world.

One of my few gripes about Autumn was its paucity of female characters. Midnight improves on this; whilst we are yet to see a female protagonist (maybe by Dawn?), the second novel is well-populated by vibrant women in secondary and incidental roles, although they are sadly prone to mortality. This isn’t unusual in (let’s face it, traditionally male-written and male-driven) spy thrillers, but it inevitably sat uncomfortably with me.

However, it was something I was prepared to live with – Midnight is another engaging entertainment with carefully-sketched characters who benefit from plenty of shading, and a series of escapades (the trip to Dresden; oh my) that propel the stakes from height to height.

My only real criticism of Midnight is that I found the final stages of the novel slightly ephemeral. After Rupert’s recruitment by Jim to infiltrate the Community, the narrative felt bitty – snatched sequences that jump through time (it’s worth acknowledging that time in the Community passes more slowly than in Europe) as well as place (although Midnight at least stuck with its protagonists’ POVs). That said, as the periodic adventures of a spy in deep water, it works, and Rupert’s dogged persistence and willingness to do the work is compelling.

And honestly, the only reason I haven’t already read the third installment (Europe in Winter, released earlier this month) is that I thought I should write up my thoughts first so that I didn’t get muddled. So, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll go get to it.