“On the tenth of March 1938, the night train from Budapest pulled into the Gare du Nord a little after four in the morning.” To readers of historical espionage fiction, that sentence can only mean one thing: Alan Furst. Furst writes about the years from 1938 to 1941 as if they were recurring characters, and over the course of several books, he has laid claim to the period as his own.
The eight World War II novels Furst has written since 1996 divide into two groups: those taking place in Paris during the Occupation and those set a bit earlier, as the war was just beginning, a time when spies of all stripes were gathering information and securing alliances while tanks gathered at the borders. In his new book, Spies of the Balkans, as well as in Spies of Warsaw (2008) and Kingdom of Shadows (2001), he has focused on the edges of the European theater—oft-invaded countries like Greece, Poland, and Hungary, where reluctant heroes find themselves drawn into the dark world of espionage. “When somebody takes your country, you help them or you fight them,” a patriot from Zagreb tells Costa Zannis, in Spies of the Balkans. Yes, but Zannis, who helps ferry Jews from Berlin through Greece to neutral Turkey, is equally driven by desires to protect his family and claim a separate peace for himself and his lover. On that delicate psychological fault line, Furst has carved a fabulous career.
As much as I admire these recent Furst novels, my favorites remain The World at Night (1996) and Red Gold (1999), both set in Nazi-occupied Paris in the early 1940s. Not since the doors were still open at Rick’s Café Americain has the pungent smoke from Galoises cigarettes filled a room with such a heady mix of trenchcoated intrigue and romance by searchlight. Both books star Jules Casson, a film producer who would prefer to keep making movies while the world explodes but who, inevitably, winds up in the resistance. What makes Casson so appealing is the way Furst refuses to let his hero off the hook; here’s a resistance fighter whose cynical antiheroism doesn’t evaporate in the last reel. Casson fights out of weary pragmatism, and he dreams mainly of a good meal, a decent glass of wine, and a willing woman. I like to think that Casson, unlike Bogie, would get on the plane with Ingrid Bergman.
Beyond the razor-sharp evocation of period and place, Furst captures the moral ambiguity at the hearts of his lapsed cynics. Their commitment is to individual rather than national values, even to hedonism rather than patriotism. Casson acts heroically but does so almost in spite of himself. That’s not to say he’s not romantic—you can’t light a cigarette on a dark Paris street in 1938 without being romantic—but he’s also utterly unsentimental. Unlike Casablanca and the other movies portraying the twentieth-century’s most terrifying yet perversely romantic period, Furst’s novels never let the romance turn the terror into mushy idealism.