The espionage novels of Alan Furst



Furst’s novels stand out, in some ways, thanks to what they do not contain.  If that sounds like a back handed compliment, it is not intended that way.  Furst is a master World War Two espionage writer.  But his books, by an large, are without fast paced action, gun fights, car chases, gadgets, and the trappings of the James Bond novel.  It Furst’s understatement, his gradual ratcheting of tension, his use of the implied threat, and the small details of setting, that help set Furst apart.

Historical context-the build-up to World War Two- forms the basis for Furst’s stories.   His low-key realism helps make his novels credible vignettes-fascinating stories from the margins of larger conflicts. To achieve this context, Furst researches his subjects theaters, be they the Spanish Civil War, the Balkans, or the expatriate scene in 1930’s Paris.  Then he places the reader in the arena, where he is informed, as well as entertained.

Furst writes slow burning novels, where the atmosphere of evocative settings, Paris, Warsaw, Salonika, Catalonia, play large roles.  He transports the reader to a city in a particular year, often the late 1930’s.  Then he leaves him to breath in its smells, watch its women pass by, sample its food, meet its dark characters, and soak in its pre-war tension.  And, as Furst delivers the reader into the protagonist’s world, the stakes become clear.  Life or death, war or peace.

The protagonists in Furst’s novels are motivated by patriotism, love and duty.  They are diplomats, military officers, reporters, cinema directors or actors.  But they are all caught up in circumstance- the impending reality of World War, and the opportunity to help avert it, or limit the damage. By choosing to stand up for what they believe right, Furst’s protagonists become prey for agents of competing nations, criminals, assassins, and opportunists.  As mortal danger envelops them, their ability to trust others evaporates. The spiral of lies, treachery, and double-cross, on which all good espionage stories depend, takes hold.  This new deadly reality confronts the hero, just as it does the reader.

Furst’s heroes are not normally trained spies.  Therefore they feel their way, making the same mistakes we would, nervous of enemies, not knowing whom to trust.  They are normally quiet heroes, not slick, confident, gun-toting types who throw out one liners in the faces of their foes.  Instead, they harbour doubts and fears, and have their faults just like us.  But they keep going, working on instinct and their own intelligence, just like the reader hopes he would have done in their place.

While Furst’s protagonists prevail in the end, their victories are often marginal, costly, ambiguous, or in vain.  Sometimes all of these.  In other words, like in real life.  And it is this credibility of plot, bereft of the swashbuckling charmer who wins it all, that leaves the reader to reflect that any Furst story could really have happened.  And for any novelist, there cannot be many more satisfying outcomes than knowing that.

More information on Alan Furst, and links to his novels, are available on his website.

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