SAN DIEGO, May 27 (UPI) -- The British are masters of espionage and British writers are masters at describing the murky world of spies. Apart from James Bond, whom nobody takes very seriously, the heroes of such novels are usually men who are expert at blending into the shadows.
From Graham Greene to Eric Ambler to John Le Carré to Len Deighton, amateurs of spy thrillers have been treated to a smorgasbord of chills and thrills in the dark world of clandestine conflict.
Alan Furst may be the only American writer to rival this group. He has created a world whose images live on in your mind long after you've put down the book.
His latest to appear in paperback, "Blood of Victory," is the seventh volume in his series of novels about WWII. It is the story of a Russian journalist, I.A. Serebin, who is recruited by the British secret service to sabotage the exportation of Romanian oil to Germany.
The title of his novel, "Blood of Victory," was inspired by a remark made by French Sen. Henry Bérenger. At an Allied conference, 10 days after the armistice, he made a speech in which he said, "Oil, the blood of the earth, has become the blood of victory." It is chilling to think that almost a century later, nothing has changed. Oil is still the center of our latest conflict -- the war in Iraq.
In the novel, Serebin, whose ties with the Russian émigré community enables him to travel and contact a variety of people without raising too many suspicions, establishes a network of agents, some blackmailed into cooperation, some working for money, and some by conviction. His mistress, Marie-Galante, is part of his network and one of the most fascinating characters in the novel.
Love affairs feature prominently in Furst's novels and anyone who has lived through a war knows that feelings are exacerbated, and the zest, even the rage, for life increases in times of danger and stress. These affairs may be temporary, fleeting romances, but they are intense, imbued as they are by a sense of urgency bred by the constant shadow of death.
Furst creates eminently human characters with their weaknesses and foibles, likable ones and evil ones, heroes and villains, all multi-dimensional, even the minor characters.
Like Josef, the waiter, they exit the story but linger on in your memory. Josef is described as "a cheerful soul, with a game leg, and merry eyes, who'd lost his hair in his twenties -- 'from worrying' he liked to say -- he'd snuck out of Prague in April of '39, after the Germans marched into the city, and, with wife and baby, somehow made his way to London. The young men who'd worked at the Drake had gone to war, so new service staff had to be hired, but the management was more than pleased with Josef.
Josef, with a hard J, to the spruce types who stopped at their club for drinks or dinner. He worked hard at being a good waiter -- he'd been a good teacher of mathematics --doing his best meant something to Josef and the club stewards knew it. Now that his wife was pregnant again they let him do all the work that he wanted, and often sent him home with a little something extra in a napkin. Life wasn't easy, with rationing, for a family man."
In just two paragraphs, Furst has sketched a very full portrait of a man, his life, his past and the present situation both in London and Prague.
As we follow Serebin and Marie-Galante on their travels throughout Europe, we get a sense of the intense efforts going on behind the scenes to foil the advance of Hitler's armies, to establish alliances, to find support among friends, and root out traitors. One is never sure who is friend and who is foe.
Forget Bond – Furst's heroes operate in a world of emigrés and refugees, a world of shadows, where one had better not attract attention if one is to survive. It is a world of doubtful morality, full of tragedy and sadness, of life in shades of gray, but with an underlying sense of hope and optimism.
Furst concentrates his action to Paris and the Balkans, with occasional forays to London, Berlin, Moscow and the Middle East, zeroing in on a particular incident of the war, while at the same time enlightening his readers on the background of European history and the events leading up to the war. He limits his time frame to the years between 1933 and 1945, taking you slowly through those years.
His use of detail is so meticulous that the reader has the impression of being there in the midst of the action, and although I have never been to Poland or Hungary, by the end of the novel I felt that I was familiar with the streets, the people, their culture and their way of life.
In interviews, Furst has said that he based his research on books by journalists of the period, personal memoirs, and autobiographies as well as newspapers, magazines, films and music, especially jazz and swing. It is those little details that he gleans from his sources that lend authenticity to his narrative.
Furst has lived for long periods in Paris and says that a sense of history still permeates certain parts of the city. Old buildings, cafés, restaurants, and street signs endure for decades if not centuries. They are as much a part of the plot as the characters. France, for Furst, is the center of western civilization, and Paris is the "consolation for life's difficulties."
In his novel, "Dark Star," there is a scene where a group of refugees, fleeing the German advance into Poland, decides to sing to raise their flagging spirits. As it turned out, the only song that the group, comprised of several different European nationalities, knew was "La Marseillaise." In a scene reminiscent of the movie "Casablanca," the ragtag band of Russians, Poles, Spaniards, Danes and Norwegians, all march together singing "Aux armes citoyens, formez vos bataillons!" As Furst points out, to raise the spirits on a rainy day, there is no better song.
I would suggest you read all of Furst's novels: "Dark Star," "Night Soldiers," "The Polish Officer," "The World at Night," "Red Gold," and "Kingdom of Shadows," as well as the latest, "Blood of Victory." They are all available in paperback from Random House.
Furst has also edited an anthology of literary espionage, "The Book of Spies," with selections from novels by Eric Ambler, John Le Carré, Graham Greene, Maxim Gorky and Joseph Conrad, to name but a few.
As Furst writes in his introduction, there were two criteria for selection: good writing and authenticity. He should know; they are the qualities of every one of his novels.
He quotes W. Somerset Maugham, whose novel "Ashenden" is arguably the best in the genre. "But there will always be espionage and there will always be counter-espionage. Though conditions may have altered, though difficulties may be greater, when war is raging, there will always be secrets which one side jealously guards and which the other will use every means to discover; there will always be men (and I would add women) who from malice or for money will betray their kith and kin and there will always be men who, from love of adventure or a sense of duty, will risk a shameful death to secure information valuable to their country." (The Book of Spies, Modern Library, 372 pages, $24.95.)
I would say that this perfectly describes the situation in Furst's novels. Spies and counter-spies, love, death, patriotism and betrayal, are all elements of "Blood of Victory" as well as the other novels. Be warned that you won't be able to put the book down until you've finished it, so prepare for a sleepless night.
("Blood of Victory," Random House, 237 pages, $12.95.)
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