There is a very simple formula for determining whether a reader will like Dave Hutchinson’s Europe In Winter, the third book in his Europe cycle. Just ask the hypothetical reader if they like John LeCarre. If the answer is yes, then no time should be wasted in suggesting fervently that they give the Hutchinson a try, because they will almost certainly adore it.
And if the answer is “no”, then the reader should be encouraged to pick it up and try it anyway, because it’s just that good.
Once again Hutchinson returns to his fractured Europe, a land of microstates and constantly shifting borders, overlaid by the alternate geography of the mysterious Community. And once again our way in to this fragile terrain is Rudi, chef and member of Les Coureurs des Bois, a mysterious organization whose mission is to move things (and people) across borders when doing so by legal or ordinary means seems impossible. Unwilling;y drawn into some of the deeper mysteries of this fractured Europe, Rudi and his allies quietly chase answers while around them, the world slips ever cloesr to a cataclysmic confrontation.
Except, of course, that it’s all gloriously understated. There’s no fist-pounding histrionics about impending doom. Instead, there’s realpolitik and discussion, the machinery of diplomacy and the delicate dance of implied threat and response. The biggest fireworks are reserved for the beginning of the book, not the end. If there’s a theme to the book, it might be “misdirection”; the obvious threat is never made, and the obvious consequence is never deployed. Rather, Hutchinson strings together a series of small stories about the individuals who’ve gotten caught up in Rudi’s quest, largely without knowing it and often without intent to ever drop into the secret world of subterfuge and tradecraft he inhabits. These sketches paint a picture of Europe in shades of gray, but do so delicately. A bureaucrat whose hobby carries with it more threat than she anticipated, a nurse at an old folks’ home whose charge turns out to be much more than she bargained for, a subway construction worker whose decision to do a friend a favor has deadly consequences – all of these are connected by Rudi’s inevitable presence as he circles in on what looks to be the answers to the questions he’s been haunted by for years. And then there’s the question of how Rudi’s late father and an absolutely spectacular pile of cash fit into the equation, and, well, it’s complicated.
But if it’s complicated, it’s never complicated for complication’s sake, and the delicacy and deliberateness with which Hutchinson builds and then dismantles his mysteries are masterful. And the resolutions, such as they are, are simultaneously satisfying and very much in keeping with the nature of the world. The reader expecting to be spoon-fed the plot will get lost easily, but for those willing to engage with Hutchinson’s world will find it well worth it; the reader expecting big screen fireworks will be disappointed but the one for whom subtler detonations are just as powerful will be more than satisfied.