The Magazine

Furst Among Equals

Alan Furst masters the spy story.

Dec 2, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 12 • By WOODY WEST
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Blood of Victory
by Alan Furst
Random House, 237 pp., $24.95

IT CAN BE A PLEASING HAPPENSTANCE how one becomes acquainted with an author--a book review, an appealing title perhaps, but more often word-of-mouth recommendation. Until a few months ago, I had not heard of Alan Furst. Then within a matter of days, two friends were astounded to hear this. To remedy what apparently was a lamentable oversight, I quickly got a copy of the first novel in his famous series, "Night Soldiers "(1988), and was dazzled. I then raced through his others (the first six are in paperback from Random House), and came up for air just in time to read the latest, "Blood of Victory." This sort of enthusiasm is not uncommon when one is young, but as the decades mount it becomes rarer and the more gratifying.

In the kingdom of letters with its many mansions, Furst is categorized as a "spy" novelist. That's fine, though he rises above his taxonomy just as, say, Elmore Leonard does with his "crime" novels. Furst has been compared with Graham Greene and Eric Ambler as writers of politically sophisticated thrillers, and Furst himself does obeisance to Ambler, particularly Ambler's 1939 novel "A Coffin for Dimitrios."

All seven of Furst's tales focus on the mid-1930s to the early 1940s, in a Europe sliding chaotically into war. It is of course a landscape ravaged by World War I, the seismic shakings of the Bolshevik Revolution, and the Nazi ascendance that shattered the world. Polyglot legions of émigrés and expatriates swirled desperately across a continent already saturated with both.

Among these scattered souls are Furst's protagonists. Escape from the web of espionage and its frequently lethal undertow is nearly impossible, and their lives are a precarious patch of false identities, false papers, and the corrosive fear of a false step. Betrayal is the environment in which they must try to survive. In this moonscape of dismal and dangerous alternatives there is no predictability or certitude for these fragile pawns of power except that their world likely will get worse.

There are in these novels, as a result, dramatic and tense collisions of events, institutions, and individuals. In one book or another, the reader is immersed in the Spanish Civil War, the Panzer onslaught into Poland, the German invasion of France. The background is suffused by relentless Nazi intelligence operatives, ruthless Soviet apparatchiks, and a broth of covert agencies from every other nation on the continent--all of them willing, indeed eager, to resort to the cruelest expedience because the stakes are so immense.

Furst masterfully differentiates the protagonists in his novels--from the Mitteleuropa recruits assiduously trained in Moscow for the cause of international communism, to a Polish army officer, and a Parisian film producer, for example. They all are recognizable on a human scale, as opposed to the one-dimensional characters that often people spy novels.

Furst writes with a vivid sense of place--he lived for long periods in Paris, the city that consistently is the pivot in his fiction. His history is meticulous, research prodigious, and the cultural landscapes have a terrific verisimilitude.

His narratives are disciplined and taut, and he crafts phrases and sentences that chisel into a reader's memory. A young and inexperienced British agent in France (The World at Night) on the eve of a dangerous piece of sabotage: "He was scared, but bolted down tight." In Bulgaria in 1934 (Night Soldiers), a 15-year-old boy is beaten to death by a gang of fascists whose thuggish leader is known as "a close accountant of small insults."

There's another quality that contributes to this novelist's appeal and that is the chilling climate of a continent that is fast turning into an abattoir. An American must be on the upper edge of the three-score-and-ten allotment card to have personal recollection of that era, even coherent childhood memories--and this country providentially was spared the profound terror that characterized those years for so many; Furst's penetrating empathy and massively organized detail give a reader a shuddering glimpse of the viciousness that infested every moment and disfigured and destroyed so many millions of lives.

The latest, "Blood of Victory, "continues the novelist's excellence (that "blood" is the oil vital to Nazi conquest of Europe). The book's prelude is spare:

In 1939, as the armies of Europe mobilized for war, the British secret services undertook operations to impede the exportation of Roumanian oil to Germany. They failed.

Then, in the autumn of 1940, they tried again.