Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson (2014) 264 p.

Europe at Midnight takes place a few decades in the future, its central science fiction conceit being that Europe has begun to balkanise: regressing into the kind of kleinstaaterei that defined the continent in the 18th century. The EU has mostly disintegrated and the spirit of Schengen is long gone; tiny new states are appearing every other week, sometimes falling apart again soon afterwards, based around long-suppressed nationalism or petty economic reasons, all of it kicked off in the first place by economic stagnation and – this is very amusing to read in 2021 – the nation-states of Europe throwing their borders shut to each other during a respiratory pandemic that originated in China. If only. (As an Australian who used to live in London and still has plenty of European acquaintances on Facebook and Instagram, it’s been morbidly fascinating to watch how many of them think nothing in the world is more important than their summer trip to the Med).

The novel explores this concept through the Coureurs, a secret network of couriers who ferry packages – information, goods, sometimes people – across Europe’s myriad new borders. Rudi, a young Estonian chef working in Poland, is recruited into the network at the beginning of the novel simply because he has a useful passport, and begins to learn the tradecraft that goes along with being a clandestine black market courier: the codewords, the dead-drops, the fake identities, et cetera. Hutchinson rather turns his nose up at the espionage cliches, and has Rudi compare things pejoratively to a Deighton novel, which I thought was a bit rich for an author who is, in the end, just writing a Deighton novel.

I make this comparison because I read my first Deighton novel recently, and Hutchinson’s writing rather reminded me of his: perfectly readable without ever becoming truly engrossing. There are some decently put together set-pieces, some semi-interesting situations… but it’s a thriller that never really thrills, a book which never compelled me to pick it up if I had anything else to be reading or even anything more interesting on my phone during the morning commute. Part of this, I think, is because of the lack of any clear stakes. Rudi transfers packages from place to place and has his run-ins with various security services and organised crime groups and various other anonymous people, but the nature of his work means we don’t know what any of it really amounts to, and we end up just watching a lot of tradecraft play out and various spies talking frankly to each other about how they’ve already rumbled each other, and then they nod respectfully at each other’s professionalism, and we rinse and repeat for next chapter. Again, this is not a very good way to run a plot when you spent the first fifty pages making meta-jokes about thriller cliches.

We do eventually get a hint of what’s happening in the final fifty pages, when the book abruptly jack-knifes into a different genre entirely. (And, unless I’m mistaken, involves Rudi murdering a cop’s lover or at least his colleague in order to somehow gain his confidence, and that… works…?) Since the blurb (which I hadn’t read) sort of gives it away, I may as well too: it involves what you might call magical realism or fantasy. I’m not against this in principle; in fact, done well, I think it mirrors what it would probably be like in real life if horrifying monsters or aliens from outer space or wizards from another dimension suddenly intruded on the predictable rhythms of your quotidian world, even if you are a secret courier. And I wouldn’t say Hutchinson handles it badly, either. It’s just that I wasn’t invested enough in the world or the story to care, at that point, and I have no desire to see how he develops that plotline in the sequels. Europe in Autumn isn’t a bad book. Not at all. It’s just forgettable – the sort of novel built around an interesting idea which might have made for a solid short story or novella, but lacks some ineffable but important ingredient that would have held my attention for an entire novel.