The literary landscape is rich in sophisticated “spy fiction,” a sub-genre of thriller-suspense by writers whose agents of destruction and invention help save nations in ways big and small.
Among the current masters of the craft, concealed in the figurative shadows along a midnight-dark cobblestone street in a foreign capital, is Alan Furst. His stories don’t involve megalomanical villains who want to rule the world (unless you count Adolf Hitler), but they are imbued with covert operations and conspiracies, with realistic characters precariously balanced on a frayed tightrope straddling life and death.
As darkly cloak-and-dagger as Furst’s books seem, he is quick to point out: “They aren’t thrillers and they’re not spy novels. They’re sort of a mélange I worked out over time. I’ve tried to create a fictional universe where the same people keep popping up, vanishing and then reappearing.”
His latest title, “A Hero of France,” is The Bee Book Club’s choice for June.
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In a medley of a life, Furst, 75, has been a college professor (the Université de Montpellier in southern France), a travel writer for national magazines including Esquire, and a columnist for the International Herald Tribune. At one point, he wrote a biography of cookie magnate Debbie Fields to raise the money to resume living in Paris. In 2002, he wrote the copy – in his trademark atmospheric style – for an Absolut vodka magazine ad featuring himself.
Furst has made a career from 14 historical espionage novels set in Europe in the years shortly before and during World War II. That window was one of unprecedented drama, the rapt focus of the world’s attention. In a best-selling series that began in 1989 and has since been translated into 18 languages, Furst unveils what life was like for ordinary citizens in extraordinary times, and what inspired them to become freedom fighters.
“A Hero of France” is set in Nazi-occupied Paris in 1941. The story unfolds as Resistance leader Mathieu (a former newspaper publisher) and the six disparate members of his cell work an escape line that smuggles downed British aviators out of France, into Spain and back to England.
To accomplish such dangerous business – if you’re caught, you’re killed – Mathieu and his team must outsmart a cadre of “ collaborators, informers and blackmailers” as they evade the German military police. Then the Gestapo shows up ...
Though Amazon Studios’ recent series “The Man in the High Castle” imagines the Nazis winning WWII and occupying the U.S. with partner Japan, the German occupation of France from 1940 through 1944 was a real ring of hell. “People would just disappear, leaving their loved ones to be punished by their imaginations for the rest of their lives,” Furst said.
In the 1930s, “the Germans waged political warfare on France,” said Furst. “They spent millions of dollars on bribes, buying newspapers and making films, everything they could do to influence the public. By the time (they invaded in 1940), they had taken the country apart with propaganda. You think, ‘It can’t happen here.’ Well, I’m not so sure.”
Combating the German occupation was the Resistance, a multifaceted underground network of citizens, from the proletariat to the aristocracy. Ultimately, it helped the Allies win the war in Western Europe.
“In the beginning, the Resistance was minimal,” Furst said on the phone from his home in Sag Harbor, N.Y. “There were a couple of newspapers and some college students, intellectuals and members of the upper-middle-class. (Also) the ex-military, who didn’t have guns anymore but were itching to fight the war.
“Some of the French were extremely courageous and ingenious, but a lot of people accommodated the Germans in various ways,” he said. “The French have been occupied many times before and have fought wars all the way back to (the time of ) Napoleon, and never won. You’d think they would have figured it out.”
When the French Communist Party joined the Resistance in 1941, “everything changed,” Furst said. “They knew how to operate in a clandestine way and how to take orders. They knew how to be at a certain place at a certain time with a certain pistol and do what had to be done.”
A niche in history
For a writer looking for intriguing storylines and high drama, the political and social turmoil in Europe during the walk-up to WW II must have been ideal hunting grounds.
“When I started (researching) that period, I thought, ‘I cannot believe how rich this is,’ ” he recalled. “It was the political 1930s and there were eight or more spy agencies operating in Paris. So I went looking for a panoramic spy novel about it and realized such a book didn’t exist. So I thought, ‘Fine, I’ll write it.’ ”
Furst was living in a small apartment in Paris at the time, banging on a “ratty” electric typewriter. “I started ‘Night Soldiers’ at a little table in a corner,” he said. “I wrote the first three pages (effortlessly), then looked up and said, ‘How the hell do I know this stuff? It’s coming from somewhere, and it’s coming through me.’ I don’t believe in channeling, so I said, ‘Who the hell cares?’ and went back to work. Now, still, I sit at the typewriter – not a computer – and whack! whack! whack! Three hours later I turn off the typewriter and go, ‘Where am I?’ ”
In a sense, Furst is a historian specializing in a specific period of time and place, though, counterintuitively, he uses no primary material such as diaries in his research. Nor does he source material from interviews with people who lived in those years. It’s because “I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings (by not using their stories).”
Instead, he turns to the works of “close historians” who wrote of events as they were happening. A better source, he said, is self-published books by people who write about their “very exciting experiences during the war. That is a very detailed fund of knowledge, told through the eyes of the people who were there.”
Another favorite source is stories by foreign correspondents of the day, such as American journalist Robert St. John, who wrote for the Associated Press from the Balkans and Bucharest.
“In one of his memoirs, he tells the story of how one night he met a woman in a bar and went to her hotel,” Furst said. “He returned to his own hotel the next morning to discover a black hole in his mattress. Somebody from the floor below had fired a shot upward that went through his bed. History is a much better novelist than any novelist ever born.”
Amid the tension and occasional violence in Furst’s books are quiet interludes of intimacy between lovers. They’re comparatively understated, given today’s standards, such as the ones between Resistance leader Mathieu and his girlfriend, Joelle, in “Hero.”
“You think those were understated?” Furst said in mock shock. “To me, they were terrifying. I’m going to get roasted by the evangelicals. Really, life was dreadful in those years and a lot of consolation was found in bed. The thought was, ‘The world is so bad outside, let’s give each other a wonderful time.’ ”
Paris in his heart
Though Furst calls Paris “the heart of civilization” and “the heartbeat of Europe,” and resided there for years, he has not visited in a decade. Instead, he and his wife, Karen, are quite content in their “old house” in the old Long Island whaling town.
“We live in a village,” he said. “I know a lot of the people and they know me. Why live any other way?”
But what about Paris? “The new book is about a Paris that is no more. It’s the Paris of my heart, and I don’t want to see the new one.”
Though Furst’s papers are curated at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin, and some of his books are used in university curricula for their historical value, he has always been modest about his place in fiction. Has he come around yet to viewing himself as more than a niche writer?
“Kind of, maybe,” he said reluctantly. “Now, instead of saying I’m a spy novelist, I say I write novels about spies. You’ll see the difference if you read the books. (My purpose) is to entertain you, I don’t want to make you a new person. One man came up to me at a reading and said, ‘My father was dying of cancer and he read ‘The World at Night’ the whole time, again and again.’ That’s my Nobel Prize.”
Had Furst lived in the years he writes about, what would his role have been? Resistance leader? Saboteur?
“I have a tagline for that: ‘It breaks my heart that I was not a combat infantryman in northern France in 1944.’ And it really kind of does. Maybe I would have been killed, but you know how they talk about giving your life for something. That would have been OK.”
Details for Bee Book Club
Alan Furst will appear for The Bee Book Club at 6 p.m. Wednesday, June 15, in The Hive at The Sacramento Bee, 2100 Q St., Sacramento. Parking is free.
A limited number of tickets to the event are still available. They’re $20 for seven-day-a-week subscribers, $30 for general admission. Buy tickets online at www.sacbee.com/beebookclub. Please bring your ticket to the event for entrance.
All proceeds benefit The Bee’s News In Education (NIE) program, bringing news and information to more than 20,000 students in the region.
Furst will give a presentation, answer questions and sign books. Barnes & Noble will be on site, selling “A Hero of France” for 30 percent off the list price (Random House, $27, 234 pages).
“A Hero of France” also will be offered for 30 percent off the list price through June 15 at these bookstores: in the Sacramento area at the four Barnes & Nobles, Avid Reader at the Tower, Underground Books, Time Tested Books and Sac State’s Hornet Bookstore; in Davis at Avid Reader and UC Davis Bookstore; in El Dorado Hills at Face in a Book; and in Grass Valley at The Bookseller.
Visit the author at www.alanfurst.net. Information: 916-321-1128.