Alan Furst may have the narrowest purview in literature. His books – which he calls historical espionage novels -- are all set in Europe between 1933 and 1945, and all are stories of World War II intrigue.
But that brief eight-year period in history has given Furst a rich amount of source material; although he had published a handful of earlier novels (now out of print, some of them fetch hundreds of dollars) Furst hit his stride with 1988’s Night Soldiers , his first book to concentrate on the decade that would forever change the world. Furst had found his niche. As Salon rhapsodized in a 2001 review, "...to talk about one of his books is to talk about them all. He is writing one large book in which each new entry adds a piece to the mosaic of Europe in the years leading up to the war, as created by a partisan of the senses."
Furst's books are grounded in their author’s extensive research of the period, and are written in an almost newsy prose broken occasionally by beautiful, lyrical passages describing, say, a Paris morning in the 1940s, or night at the Czechoslavakian-Hungarian border. History buffs will find much to love here; while the books are fiction, some of the details are factual. In Night Soldiers, for example, immigrants arriving at Ellis Island exchanged their clothing for new outfits; in reality, the American government often bought clothing from immigrants to use as costumes for its spies.
And while Furst’s novels are entertaining and, often, elegant, they are not easy reads: the books traverse through a wide swath of Europe (an important character itself in Furst’s fiction), and characters duck behind corners and sometimes stumble into the continent’s more remote regions (while not partying in Paris, that is). Though his male protagonists manage to find and sometimes lose lovers, Furst’s books are primarily concerned with the moral slipperiness involved in fighting off Hitler's advance, where even the best intentions could produce regrettable results.
Furst's books have grown leaner and tauter over the years, the result of a conscious effort "to say more by saying less." Notwithstanding this paring back, or perhaps because of it, the praise for his books only seems to multiply, and Furst’s writing has lost none of its veracity or suspense. Furst, who many critics consider literature’s best-kept secret, may not be a household name yet, but with such buzz, his low profile won’t last much longer.
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Night Soldiers originated from a piece Furst wrote for Esquire in 1983. He was also a reporter for the International Herald Tribune and wrote a biography of cookie entrepeneur Debbie Fields.
Furst wrote in a 2002 essay, "For me, Anthony Powell is a religion. I read A Dance to the Music of Time every few years."
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From the September/October 2002 issue of Book magazine
For years, Alan Furst suffered that most backhanded of author compliments: He was a critical darling. With a series of elegant espionage thrillers stretching back to 1988 (when the New York native published Night Soldiers), Furst was beloved by reviewers, but for more than a decade -- in America, at any rate -- an all-too-small cadre of devotees was left asking why more people didn't read his books.
The answer may have to do with timing. While Furst's work -- set in Europe just before World War II -- remains immersed in the same romantic, meticulously researched atmosphere, over the past year his relative anonymity has all but vanished. Now, the popularity he has enjoyed in Europe has spilled over to his native land.
"They are so much more popular since 9/11," says Furst, who was working on his latest -- Blood of Victory, due in September -- at his Sag Harbor, New York, home last September 11. "People have said to me, 'There's something about your books that has to do with us, although I can't put my finger on exactly what it is,' and I can't either."
Maybe it's the air of anxiety, even dread, that fills Furst's stories. EM>Blood of Victory, for instance, follows émigré author Ilya A. Serebin as he navigates occupied Europe -- with the threat of Nazi domination increasing -- and strives to block Germany's access to its Romanian oil fields.
Furst's reluctant heroes are not fists-and-whiskey gumshoes or hard-nosed marine sergeants. Surrounded by old money, Pernod and creamy-skinned women, they are men of means and education who are thrust into action by German aggression and forced to deal with the consequences. And this resonates with his readers.
"We see [World War II] as the period of our best selves, when we rose to confront evil," says Furst. "Researchers asked people who had been in the resistance, 'Why did you do it?' And again and again they got the same answer: 'Because I was asked.' I had that same response after 9/11. I said to myself, 'Half the population in America would love to be asked to do something. They would only need to be asked and they would be so happy to help.' " That, finally, is what Furst's stories are about: people responding to evil.
Furst is at work on his next book, to be set in the Baltic. While the locations change, the premise doesn't. "I'm writing about people who are attacked, who are damaged by the kind of people who damaged us on 9/11, people to whom human life is not valuable," he says. "The idea that I would write something else never occurred to me. I have greater conviction than ever."
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