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.
The Wehrmacht in this autumn has subdued Poland, and the SS there is eliminating Jews and other proscribed minorities. Hitler and Stalin have signed their cynical treaty, and the Germans are subverting those nations of Eastern Europe that are feverishly trying to avoid the Scylla and Charybdis of alliance or conquest. France is occupied, with the exception of course of collaborationist Vichy, and British cities are burning from Luftwaffe bombs.
It is late November 1940. I.A. Serebin, a Soviet émigré and writer, is one of those multitudes seeking to avoid the coming fire. He describes himself as "Half Russian aristocrat, half Bolshevik Jew." Two years early, he got out of the Soviet Union half a jump ahead of the purge that would have included him.
He has been a Czarist artillery officer, then a Red Army soldier fighting the Whites, and he fought for the Communists in Poland in 1921. He began to achieve a reputation as a novelist and short story writer and was assigned to Spain as a correspondent for Izvestia. Fleeing the Soviet Union, he's found a relatively inconspicuous livelihood as an official of the International Russian Union, an organization that tries to provide social services and community for the diverse populations dispersed across Europe by the savage turbulence since 1917. The IRU tried to "hold tight to the mythical [Russian] center, an ideology of Tolstoy, compassion, and memories of sunsets, and accepted the dues of the inevitable police informers with a sigh and a shrug."
Now, Serebin is aboard a rusty Bulgarian freighter on the Black Sea en route to Istanbul and the IRU chapter there. In a deft Furstian metaphor for the deadly momentum on the continent, Serebin is listening to the radio in the ship's wardroom:
It produced the transmissions of a dozen stations, which wandered on and off the air like restless cats. Sometimes a few minutes of news on Soviet dairy production, now and then a string quartet, from somewhere on the continent. Once a shouting politician, in Serbo-Croatian, who disappeared into crackling static, then a station in Turkey, whining string instruments and a throbbing drum. To Serebin, a pleasant anarchy. Nobody owned the air above the sea. Suddenly the Turkish music vanished, replaced by an American swing band with a woman singer . . .
The Turkish visit to attend to his IRU chores is actually a cover. He is responding to a letter from Tamara Petrovna, his lost love, but still his love since he was 15 years old and they were youngsters in Odessa; a Red Army nurse, she contracted TB and is now near death in Istanbul.
"Serebin was forty-two, this was his fifth war, he considered himself expert in the matter of running, hiding, or not caring." But the dying Tamara quietly tells him what he knows but wishes not to recognize: "this terrible war. It will come for you. . . . Oldest story in the world: if you don't stand up to evil it eats you first and kills you later, but not soon enough."
With his background, Serebin is of course known to the secret police across Europe. After leaving Tamara, he is steered by a diplomat's wife to a contact with a Hungarian spymaster who is working with the British. He enlists Serebin in the vastly risky, complicated operation to interrupt, even if but briefly, Roumanian oil to Germany. That's probably the best that can be accomplished.
"We don't have to win, we have to play," the spymaster tells Serebin as the operation is launched. "Slow him [Hitler] down--an inevitable problem with supply. Make him think about timing, his Russian invasion, wait for the Americans."
Serebin shortly will find himself on a barge on the Danube on the border between Bulgaria and Roumania (spelled thus on the highly useful maps in these novels). To detail this tense and bloody operation, and the delicate interim arrangements in Belgrade and Bucharest and Paris, would be a disservice. "Blood of Victory" is consistently memorable fiction and, given the ominous givens, has an unusually satisfactory ending.
Alan Furst is a novelist who can keep one reading far into the night. He is worth the lost sleep.
Woody West is associate editor of the Washington Times.