Second thoughts on Alan Furst

This is one of the things that makes Alan Furst such a remarkable writer of historical thrillers. His specialty is wartime or pre-war Europe, and this is from Blood of Victory:

n60875.jpgBelgrade -- or so the British cartographers called it. To the local residents, it was Beograd, the White City, the capital of Serbia, as it had always been, and not a place called Yugoslavia, a country which, in 1918, some diplomats made up for them to live in. Still, when that was done, the Serbs were in no shape to object. They'd lost a million and a half people, siding with Britain and France in the Great War, and the Austro-Hungarian army had looted the city. Real, old-fashioned looting -- none of this prissy filching of the national art and gold. They took everything. Everything that wasn't hidden and much that was. Local residents were seen in the street wearing curtains, and carpets. And ten years later, some of them, going up to see friends in Budapest, were served dinner on their own plates.

That's a hefty chunk of exposition this late in the game, more than three-fourths of the way through Furst's story of an attempt to sabotage the Nazis' oil supply. And some of that background is, frankly, pretty tour-guide basic ("Belgrade -- or Beograd, as the locals say").

Admittedly, Blood of Victory shifts locations a lot - Turkey to Paris to Romania - so Furst has to get some map-reading in. With most thriller writers, such exposition reads like dutiful work. It's the stuff they have to shovel in.

But Furst does it so smoothly and enjoyably. He treats the reader well. As much as the story or the characters, he seems to say, this is what a historical thriller is about, this kind of texture. It's not just data nor is it a bit of war-is-hell, tough-guy posturing on the narrator's part. It's evocative, graceful, even humane in the way the author, in that last line, clearly understands the anger and surprise of the Serbs while also relishing the humor of the situation, appreciating the good "old-fashioned" looting. It's all very much part of Furst's oft-noted "urbane" or "European" touch - that sympathy with a smile and a Gallic shrug.

In fact, for comparison's sake, let's look at another American thriller writer's use of exposition and scene-setting, a thriller writer I've chosen perfectly at random - oh, let's say - Tom Clancy. This is from Clancy's TheTeeth of the Tiger:

"The cabs in London are good." He looked up, "You know that. You've been to London."

"Some," Jack agreed. "Nice city. Nice people."

That sparkling little exchange gets to the heart of London, don't you think? You can practically see the nice people riding around the nice city in all those good cabs. I also like that "'Some,' Jack agreed."

That's so much simpler than "'Some,' Jack partly agreed."

So let's not dismiss scene-setting and exposition as minor affairs for a thriller writer. I recently picked up Blood of Victory because I'm reading a study of thrillers, and it reminded me that I still had some titles of Furst's to read. I came to him late because he didn't always write with such seemingly effortless style. Initially, his writing felt like a patently movie-ish attempt to evoke atmosphere, not create it but borrow it, remind us of it from other places. His first novel, Night Soldiers got generally excellent reviews when it came out in 1988. I was turned off by this sort of passage, though:

But nothing here was what it seemed. Even the gray stone of the buildings hid within itself a score of secret tints, to be revealed only by one momentary strand of light. At first, the tide of secrecy that rippled through the streets had made him tense and watchful, but in time he realized that in a city of clandestine passions, everyone was a spy. Amours. Fleeting or eternally renewed, tender or cruel, a single sip or an endless bacchanal.....

Did you catch that? It's not just the gray stone that has its secrets, it's the gray stone's hidden tints. Now, that's a secretive town. And that's a writer who's piling on too many metaphors, straining too much after atmosphere. He's either showing off his 'fancy' writing or he's insecure and he's forcing things.

<But Furst calmed down, gained confidence, his writing became smoky yet lean. And he began using dry, throwaway humor. In the midst of the suspense and violence, it lends a cosmopolitan feel that aids immensely in making his main characters appealing. These are sadly experienced men, often with conflicted loyalties, or they're the perennial losers in the big European wars. In Blood of Victory, Serebin's a Russian who escaped Stalin, ends up in Paris and now must elude the Gestapo. Why him? he asks. Why not? "That was, Serebin thought, glib and ingenuous, but until a better two-word history of the USSR came along, it would do."

So Serebin is another reluctant hero. He's enlisted in a plot to disrupt the flow of Romanian oil by sinking barges at a crucial point along the Danube. Like Furst's other protagonists, he's not a natural warrior or idealist, but a man who would be much happier eating good food and staying in bed with a lover (in fact, it's a lover, a French diplomat's wife, who gets Serebin involved in all this).

th_0375758267.jpgEven the espionage operations Furst's characters get caught up in are not the grand master plans like Overlord or Barbarossa. They're more the nuts-and-bolts clandestine efforts: smuggling weapons or people, sabotaging the enemy's materiel, trying to sway a political situation. Yet we learn from each novel - as earth-changing events overtake our protagonists - that when everything's at stake, every little thing counts. Rather than an easy nostalgia for some time of supposed moral clarity, Furst's novels give us a feel for the murk and undertow and backwash of warfare and espionage -- the "kingdom of shadows" -- and it's often the murk and backwash that are as dangerous as any army.

All of this leads to that very Furstian effect, perfectly on display in Blood of Victory: His novels are at once elegant and earthy. Somehow, magically, they're sardonic and anti-heroic -- yet also touchingly heroic.

I can't get enough of them.

January 26, 2007 7:37 AM | | Comments (1)



About Alan Furst:
Have read about 6 of his books and much appreciated them. Someone said it well: he skillfully sketches it in, giving the feeling of time and place and atmosphere, enabling the important details to carry you along with the story. However, with hindsight, I would appreciate a sharper, more detailed image, along with Furst's other skills. Furst's contribution is also his retrieval of a period, enabling a subsequent generation to grasp and feel the mood, spirit, events of an epoch that was the prelude and early part of WWII.


Best of the Vault


Pat Barker, Frankenstein, Cass Sunstein on the internet, Samuel Johnson, Thrillers, Denis Johnson, Alan Furst, Caryl Phillips, Richard Flanagan, George Saunders, Michael Harvey, Larry McMurtry, Harry Potter and more ...


Big D between the sheets -- Dallas in fiction


Reviewing the state of reviewing


9/11 as a novel: Why?


How can critics say the things they do? And why does anyone pay attention? It's the issue of authority.

The disappearing book pages:  

Papers are cutting book coverage for little reason

Thrillers and Lists:  

Noir favorites, who makes the cut and why



About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by book/daddy published on January 26, 2007 7:37 AM.

A quick update ... was the previous entry in this blog.

Bookstore bounceback? is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.