Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Alan Furst

Do you like a good historical spy-thriller?
by Charlie Leck

Some time ago, some writers and, therefore, of course, avid readers, told me about Alan Furst. They were surprised, in a condescending sort of way, that I had not read anything by him – that I really didn’t know about him. They knew full well that I enjoyed really good spy thrillers.

“Furst is the best,” they chimed out together. “He’s absolutely the best.”

Those are awkward kinds of moments, when you feel really silly, small and stupid. So, that evening I did some reading about Alan Furst and, sure enough, because of my enjoyment of the spy-thriller,I should have known about him and I certainly should have read him.

“Start with Dark Voyage,” they had told me when they saw me slumping and looking shamefully inadequate. “You must start with that one and then do whatever you want in reading the rest.”

They rattled off a series of titles I ought to pick up: Dark Star, Red Gold, Blood of Victory, Night Soldiers.

Well, I began a search for Dark Voyage. I’ve told you before that my favorite source for book buying is the American Book Exchange (better known as ABE) and I go to that web site to search for and buy most of my books. I was pretty disappointed to find out that the book, in a first edition copy, was not in stock anywhere and was very difficult to come by. I put it on my wish list at ABE and heard only last week that one dealer (Thriftbooks) had come up with it. I okayed the order and sat back and waited for the mailman (a lady in my case) to deliver it. I could have gone to the Alan Furst website and ordered a paperback edition, but I’m a snob and don’t much care for paperbacks.

I was able to get started on Dark Voyage on the evening it came. I began with what appeared to be a very brief, even tiny, prologue. It was intriguing.
“In the first nineteen months of European war, from September, 1939, to March of 1941, the island nation of Britain and her allies lost, to U-boat, air, and sea attack, to mines and maritime disaster, one-thousand, five hundred and ninety-six merchant vessels.

“It was the job of the Intelligence Division of the Royal Navy to stop it, and so, on the last day of April, 1941…”
I dropped the book to my lap and thought about that. The man had just written that Britain and her allies had lost 1,596 merchant vessels in a period of two years and six months. The United States, I remembered, had not yet entered the war. How devastating! With angst, I flipped forward to the beginning of the book.

Within a sentence or two I was able to know with certainty that I had in my hands a book by a real and talented writer.

“In the port of Tangier, on the last day of April, 1941, the fall of the Mediterranean evening was, as always, subtle and slow. Broken cloud, the color of dark fire in the last of the sunset, drifted over the hills above the port, and streetlamps lit the quay that lined the waterfront. A white city, and steep; alleys, souks, and cafés, their patrons gathering for love and business as the light faded away.”
It is the marvelous thing about reading any extraordinary novel; that is, it takes you with it to new places and to other times. Furst had drawn me from my easy chair and brought me to Tangiers. There I was, witnessing the events of that early evening and totally at his mercy.

John le Carré does that to me when I read him. I’ve always considered The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963)to be the best spy thriller I had ever read – until now, that is.

My somewhat snobby, writer friends had been correct. Furst is absolutely extraordinary. He is a brilliant story teller and he is a classy, talented writer. What a remarkable discovery! What a treat! How in heaven’s name had I escaped any knowledge of him? Again, I felt small and silly.

What you must know about Furst is that he is among that genre of “historical spy-thriller writers.” There really is a significant concentration on placing the plot and characters within an accurate historical perspective. It is this that makes writers like Furst and le Carré much more intriguing to read than Daniel Silva and his slash and burn action style.

Furst is a Manhattan boy (Upper West Side). He received his B.A. from Oberlin in ’62 and an M.A. from Penn State in ’67. He’s also lived in the south of France and in Paris. For a short time he worked for the legendary Margaret Mead. He wrote for magazines such as Esquire and, for a period of time, wrote a weekly column in the International Herald Tribune. Furst now lives out on Long Island. He calls Paris “the heart of civilization” and I am not going to argue with that. His novels have never sold in staggering numbers, but, over the years, he’s built a steady, large and loyal group of followers.

If you want to read a quite good and creative story about Alan Furst and how he works, read this article from the NY Times (June, 2009) by Charles McGrath
“North, and north. Into the heart of the storm on the evening of the sixteenth, where the wind shrieked and thirty-foot waves came crashing over the deck and sheets of driven rain sluiced down the bridge-house windows. It was DeHaan who took the storm watch, but Ratter and Kees were on and off the bridge all night long, everybody in oil-skins, including the helmsman, hands white on the wheel, who stood a two-hour shift before DeHaan sent him below and had a fresh one take over. The force of the storm blew out of the west, and DeHaan kept giving up a grudging point at a time, fighting for his course, because Noordendam couldn’t take it full on the beam. Finally Kees said, ‘Turn into the goddamn thing for Christ’s sake,’ and DeHaan gave the order, swinging due west and heading up into the wind. Mr. Ali came up, now and again, blinking as he wiped his glasses with a handkerchief, to report distress calls coming in on the radio – the North Atlantic taking hold of the war that night and trying to break it in half. Then a savage gust of wind snapped the aerial and Ali appeared no more.”
END of blog!

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