My heart always beats a little faster upon spying a new novel by Alan Furst. It’s no secret that I am a longtime fan of Furst, “who uses the shadowy world of espionage to illuminate history and politics with immediacy.”
I wrote that in a review of one of his earlier works, Dark Star or maybe The Polish Officer, and it’s since become a bookjacket blurb, along with “Some books you read. Others you live. They seep into your dreams and haunt your waking hours until they become the stuff of memory and experience.” Also, “imagine Casablanca as written by John le Carre and you get some idea of the effect of Furst’s cinematic tales, which take place in the late 1930s and early ’40s. The lights are going out across Europe, and we see them flickering in Paris and Prague, Moscow and Berlin, Warsaw and the Ukraine.”
Yes, the guy is that good. How do I know? Because, about nine years ago, after more than a decade of singing his praises to whomever would listen (I once spent a good portion of an interview with David Halberstam discussing Furst), his novels started climbing the best-seller lists and profiles appeared in news magazines and the New York Times. Vintage reissued his books in handsome paperbacks, and Furst reviewed a le Carre novel for the Sunday book review. (I’m not taking credit — it all goes to Furst. Still, at the time, I thought, “at last, mission accomplished).
But now comes the backlash. Relative newcomers to the Furst bandwagon, who have only read a handful of his 11 books, are starting to question his mastery. They quibble that his new Spies of the Balkans, like its predecessor The Spies of Warsaw, isn’t up to standards. Too formulaic, they say..
Excuse me. If by formulaic, they mean an intelligent, well-written atmospheric story featuring fairly ordinary citizens making extraordinary efforts to stop the Nazi domination of Europe, well, yes, Furst might be repeating himself. But northern Greece and the port city of Salonika in 1940 is new territory for me, as is police officer Costa Zannis’ adventures trying to forge an escape route for refugees through the hostile Balkans to Turkey, aided by counterparts in Berlin and Zagreb. The air is again thick with moral ambiguity. Yes, Costa has some interesting romantic liaisons, as have other Furst heroes, and even more interesting enemies. But he also has a true allegiance to his family and birthplace, making him less of an idealistic free spirit caught up by the fortunes of war.
Maybe this this novel isn’t quite as powerful to me as some of Furst’s others, but I’ve only read it once, quickly flipping pages. Now I can look forward to rereading it, savoring scenes I rushed through, admiring how well Furst can sketch an entire character in a couple of sentences or a snippet of dialogue. For example, there’s “the friend of a friend,” who looks to Zannis “like a French king; prosperously stout, with fair, wavy hair parted to one side, creamy skin, a prominent nose, and a pouch that sagged beneath his chin.” A little later, the man instructs Zannis, “When you describe your adventures in France, as no doubt you will have to, I would take it as a personal favor that you remain silent about this particular chapter, about me.”
Zannis does, but not Furst. He specializes in these secret chapters of a forgotten history.
Open Book: I met Alan Furst at a book convention some years ago and he later sent me a signed hardcover edition of the first of his historical espionage novels, 1988’s Night Soldiers, after learning that my mass market paperback was falling apart. I bought my copy of Spies of the Balkans (Random House).