Alan Furst Writes Books Where Everybody Knows the Ending

By , Contributor

Alan Furst, whom the New York Times rightly called “America’s preeminent spy novelist,” once commented at a public reading that he writes books “where everybody knows the ending.” He is drawn to the dark places in Eastern Europe between 1933 and 1942, when it became more or less apparent that Germany would be defeated.

He makes very real the anguish and suffering of people from countries that some Americans would have difficulty finding on a map. Night Soldiers begins in Bulgaria; Blood of Victory describes the adventures of a Russian émigré journalist in Romania. Kingdom of Shadows features a Hungarian diplomat Nicholas Morath, whose experiences in quasi-medieval Eastern Europe as it was before 1940 take on great poignancy because we know that it will all be swept away.

Although we know how the war will end, Furst’s characters never know what’s going to happen next. After all, this is a world in which nothing makes sense any more. Paris has fallen; it looks as though Hitler is going to rule the world… and a pianist plays “Mood Indigo” during the cocktail hour.

Furst’s genius as a writer is to put us readers in very much the same situation. When we start a sentence, we don’t know how it’s going to end. Again and again Furst sets us up by yoking together two halves of a sentence that don’t fit together.

In The World at Night, his hero Jean Casson reads a newspaper: “There wasn’t all that much to read: Germany had attacked Belgium and the Netherlands and Luxembourg, the French army had advanced to engage the Wehrmacht, a stunning assortment of world leaders were infuriated…”  Or, later in the same book, Casson is talking to a Nazi; “He realized that Millau possessed a very dangerous quality: he was likeable.”

Like Tom Wolfe, Furst gets the period detail right. He knows the train schedules, knows where people bought cheese, and so forth. But for me the thing makes his novels worth reading and rereading is the way he involves the reader in the uncertainties, the ambiguities, and the anxieties of Europe in the late thirties.

Finally, I think what you have to say is that the very best writers of popular fiction transcend their genre, whatever it is. Alan Furst is no more just a spy novelist than Donna Leon is just a detective novelist. Who would have thought that the age of the Internet would have produced such wonderful writers!

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JIm Curtis has a background in Russian studies, and is fascinated with both high culture and popular culture. He just finished a book on Dylan, and covers the book beat for The Morton Report.

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