Alan Furst is an American author who has written fifteen novels of historical espionage set in Europe between 1938-45. The backbone of his work is Martin Gilbert’s A History of the Twentieth Century, Volume Two: 1933-51, supplemented by reading newspapers and diaries. His models are the English authors Graham Green and Eric Ambler, the author of A Coffin for Dimitrios, published a month before Germany invaded Poland.
Furst’s historical research serves as a foundation for great thrillers! He realistically portrays people’s motives and lost loves, concerns and compromises. He asks: What draws ordinary people to choose to take risks and become heroes? Many are not trained as spies, but are intellectuals who can travel without drawing attention to themselves, such as a movie star, a journalist, or a novelist.
Night Soldiers, the first in the series, stretches across 1934 -1945. After the younger brother of a Bulgarian teenager is murdered by local fascists, he knows that he will be next. After being recruited by a Russian hiding out in the river town, he spends several years in Moscow being trained by the Soviet secret intelligence service.
His first posting is in Spain, to serve on the side of the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War in 1936. As the Nationalists led by Francisco Franco are approaching Madrid, there is little hope of the Republicans winning. After being warned that he is on a list to be purged by Joseph Stalin, he flees to Paris in 1937 to hide out. He is in even greater danger when Hitler’s soldiers take Paris in June 1940.
German soldiers at the Moulin Rouge after
occupying Paris in June 1940.
Meanwhile, an American man joins the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) after becoming bored while working in an advertising firm in New York City. In the fall of 1943 he parachutes into the Vosges mountains of southeastern France to organize the Resistance in that region, which includes the Bulgarian spy. Their goals include sabatoging locomotives in order to keep German soldiers and supplies from reaching Normandy, France, where the Allies land in June 1944.
A reviewer in the New York Times wrote: “Like Shane, Furst’s heroes tend to be loners. . . They take on the burden of an entire city or country. . . We all hope in our secret selves that we would be risk-takers like Mathieu [in A Hero in France], that we would stand with truth and justice in dire times, that we wouldn’t keep our heads down, looking the other way when the police wagons passed by.”(1)
Wartime Paris with its melancholy and shadows shows up in all of the books!(2) But one of Furst’s strengths is introducing his readers to events in countries that are less well known. Though secondary characters crossover, each book stands alone and can be read in any order. After the panoramic scope of Night Soldiers, Furst generally focuses on fewer years and places in his other books. Here are a few favorites: Dark Star (1937-40); The Polish Officer (1939); Spies of the Balkans (1940).
One can disappear into these atmospheric books!
(1) Sara Paretsky, “Resistance!” [Review of Alan Furst, A Hero of France], NYT Book Review,
June 5, 2016.
(2) Brendan Bernhard, “Our Best Thriller Writer” Sun, September 29, 2004.
Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-129-0480-25 / Boesig, Heinz / CC-BY-SA