Thursday, July 15, 2010

(No.103) Spies, masks & coffins

Alan Furst, an American magazine writer and columnist, took a trip to the Danube in 1983 to research an article for Esquire. So interested did he become in the area, its atmosphere and history that he was inspired to begin writing Night Soldiers, a book eventually published in 1988.

It was not his first novel (today he seems to more or less disown his earlier books) but it became the first in a highly successful series of novels -- 11 so far* -- set in Europe of the 1930s and 1940s. It is a genre he refers to as historical espionage fiction and it is an apt description. It is not a genre he invented but it is one of which he is a master.

Furst embraces being regarded as a genre novelist and all of his novels beginning in 1988 through his latest, Spies of the Balkans (just published by Random House), are set in Europe. If I had to choose favourites among his novels, those with Paris as the main locus would head my list.

The novels are based not only on Furst's extensive research but also on his time spent living in Europe and travelling there extensively. Whether a reader has visited Paris or Vienna or Salonika (the latter being the principal setting of Spies of the Balkans) his novels transport one to the time and place with extraordinary effect. An authentic atmosphere is more deeply and consistently evoked than by most other novelists currently writing who come to mind.

I don't remember which of Furst's historical espionage novels I first read but I became enthralled immediately. I read the others as quickly as I could lay my hands on them and have eagerly awaited the publication of each new one every two years or so. The next, apparently to be titled Enchanted Stranger, is due in 2012.

Here is a taste of Furst's writing style, introducing readers to Costa Zannis, the lead character of Spies of the Balkans, just returned to his hometown in Greece after several years in Paris:

" Back in Salonika, and urgently needing to make a living, he took a job as a policeman. He didn't much care for it but he worked hard and did well. ... By 1934 he was promoted to detective and, three years later, to, technically, the rank of sub-commander, though nobody ever used that title. This advancement did not just happen by itself. An old and honored expression, from the time of the Turkish occupation, said that it was most fortunate to have a barba sto palati, an uncle in the palace, and it turned out, to Zannis's surprise, that he had that very thing. His particular talent, a kind of rough diplomacy, getting people to do what he wanted without hitting them, had been observed by the head of the Salonika police, a near mystic presence in the city."

Perhaps the novelists to whom Alan Furst has most often been compared are the Englishmen Graham Greene (1904- 1991) and Eric Ambler (1909-1998). Although far from all of either writer's novels can be labelled 'historical espionage fiction' in the way that Alan Furst's are, several can.

Greene's novella, The Third Man (1950), is set in a post-war Vienna the policing of whose ruins is divided among the four allies. It was actually written not for publication but as the first step of Greene's drafting of a script for the classic movie of the same name directed by Carol Reed, produced by Alexander Korda and starring Orson Welles.

Eric Ambler's The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) moves from Turkey pre-war into the Balkans and then to Paris. It was published as A Coffin for Dimitrios in the U.S. and made into a movie in 1944. It is regarded by some as the best of Ambler's 19 novels.

Both the Greene and Ambler novels are in print in paperback: The Third Man and The Fallen Idol (Vintage,2005); A Coffin For Dimitrios (Vintage,2001).

A reader of Furst's espionage novels will not only enjoy these two novels by Greene and Ambler but cannot fail to be impressed by how favourably Furst's writing and plots compare with those of these two English novelists. In particular I suggest reading Ambler's Dimitrios either right after or just before Furst's latest as they both involve settings in the Balkans and Turkey. In terms of contemporary historical novelists I rank Furst on a par with his fellow American David Liss, the author of several superb books of historical fiction such as A Conspiracy of Paper.

Alan Furst's novels are not 'spy thrillers' . They are works of literary quality with plots of complexity and characters with texture. I have long since begun reading them again.

* The 11 historical espionage novels written by Alan Furst thus far:

Night soldiers (1988), Dark Star (1991), The Polish Officer (1995), The World at Night (1996), Red Gold (1999), Kingdom of Shadows (2000), Blood of Victory (2003), Dark Voyage (2004), The Foreign Correspondent (2006), The Spies of Warsaw (2008), Spies of the Balkans (2010).


Alastair Rickard