When a reader finally gets around to his first Alan Furst novel, he or she likely soon will wonder: “Why hadn’t I heard about this guy before?”
Furst may be the best writer of “spy” novels who is not a major publishing star nor had one of his books adapted for the screen. He is every bit as good as John le Carre, the British spy novelist, and perhaps better, given Le Carre’s steady shift toward relentless anti-Americanism over the past 15-20 years.
The man has written a dozen “Night Soldier” novels, loosely based on espionage in Europe, and I blew through all 12 of them in less than a year.
Why is he so good?
His novels are set in a particularly interesting moment in time in a particularly important part of the world — pre-World War II Europe.
His genius is his ability to convince us that he knows what the major European capitals of that decade looked like and felt like, even what they smelled like.
The 1930s were a fraught time, in Europe. Fascism and communism were on the march. Economies had imploded. People were hungry. By the middle of the decade, everyone seems to know in their bones that the horrific Great War of 1914-1918 is about to be played out again (and it was), and a gloom hangs over the continent and seeps into his books.
Also, everyone is spying on everyone else, looking for answers to questions. What sort of tank are the Germans building? How is the harvest in Romania? What does Franco’s looming victory in the Spanish Civil War mean? How can Hungary stay out of the coming war? How can an Italian expat living in France manage to get anti-Mussolini tracts into Italy?
We watch all this through the fog and rain of what seems a perpetual winter night. Brave individuals, often accidental heroes (more than once, journalists), populate the books. The government often is after them, but they have friends, out in the streets. Or at the newspaper. Or the embassy. And they have wit as well as desperation.
His best book in the series is the first, Night Soldiers. It is the longest, and appears to have received extra layers of attention and plot development. It starts in Romania, where the NKVD (the forerunner of the KGB) recruits a young man, takes him to Moscow, trains him in spy craft, sends him to Spain to aid the Republicans (and to spy on them) … and before the NKVD can kill him he escapes …
Subsequent books are set in Germany, Poland, Greece, France, Hungary, Italy … what Furst does is work his way around the continent and get inside the polities of the time, and create worlds populated with hundreds of characters, many of whom make cameos, albeit interesting cameos, of about 10 pages.
His protoganist is always a male, usually in his 40s, unmarried, not averse to romantic interludes, often a reluctant opponent (at first) of tyranny who wakes up one morning and realizes he is risking his life in a small but meaningful opposition to monstrous regimes.
Border crossings are fraught with danger, and what sort of passport you carry is crucial — much like modern times in Asia, where Palestinians, Lebanese, Pakistanis, Jordanians, Syrians often are looking for dual citizenship.
In the Furst books, the notion that “I need to be ready to flee tomorrow” is an ever-present subtext.
The novels are not conventionally structured. Often the plot seems to envelope characters, and then move through several countries as the real history of the 1930s and early 1940s is referenced. They don’t have a conclusion so much as an ending, often immediately after an event important to the main character but not to history.
The plight of Jews in Nazi Germany is central to several books, but Furst also pities anyone caught up in Stalin’s Soviet Union and its voracious and murderous spy culture.
(In an interesting subplot, Furst suggests that it was Kristallnacht — Hitler’s attack on Jewish synagogues and property — which emboldened Stalin to begin a purge of his intelligence services, which in the early years of the USSR were heavily Jewish — but were anything but by the time the war broke out.)
The whole of the series — the scheming and the desperation, and the threat of imminent arrest — is a bit like the movie Casablanca — except done 12 times and ranging from Sweden to Egypt.
To get a sense of the writing, here is the opening paragraph from Dark Voyage, perhaps one of the least known of his 12 espionage books.
“In the port of Tangier, on the last day of April, 1941, the fall of the Mediterranean evening was, as always, subtle and slow. Broken cloud, the color of dark fire in the last of the sunset, drifted over the hills above the port, and streetlamps lit the quay that lined the waterfront. A white city, and steep; alleys, souks, and cafes, their patrons gathering for love and business as the light faded away. Out in the harbor, a Spanish destroyer, the Almirante Cruz, stood at anchor among the merchant steamers, hulls streaked with rust, angular deck cranes hard silhouettes in the dark.”
Furst’s ability to evoke a place 80 years ago … is impressive. If you know anything of Europe and the politics of the 1930s, you will want to read all 12 of his spy novels. (It has made me want to visit part of central and southern Europe I have never seen.)
A couple of spoiler alerts. So stop here if you don’t want to know — though you would soon pick up on this yourself:
1. The protagonist never dies. Good guys die, but not the main character.
2. The protagonist, whether he is a Hungarian nobleman or a scrawny Pravda correspondent, will find a romantic attachment.
3. In all 12 novels, at some point the hero arrives in Paris, and in every book the main character has a meal at a particular restaurant near the Bastille.
4. Before 1940, nearly everyone is desperate to get out of wherever they are and go to France, and particularly Paris.
I heartily recommend Alan Furst. Start with Night Soldiers, and see if you can stop there.