Although he did not attain large-scale success until he was fifty, Alan Furst became the most successful new writer of espionage fiction in the 1990’s, a success that continued on a larger scale in the twenty-first century. Furst pioneered the genre of the atmospheric thriller, as important for its evocation of times and places gone by as for the excitement of its plot. His novels are steeped in the ambience of Europe before and during World War II. Furst writes historical fiction that happens to contain spying as much as he composes spy novels with a historical setting. Though Furst lived for many years in Paris and that city tends to be a motif in his fiction, he also sets much of his action in Eastern European countries less familiar to the readers of this genre.
Furst often features protagonists who are communists or working for the communists. His preoccupation with Communism and his Eastern European settings can be seen as a product of the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989-1991; he is exploring this period from the perspective of the 1990’s and after, now that it is no longer possible to see a powerful Soviet Union as a permanent outcome of World War II. Nonetheless, Furst’s communists are three-dimensional characters, not cardboard ideologues, who fall in love, feel pain, and register the full range of psychological reactions. A master of historical detail, Furst also allows his characters to hold complex and deeply felt beliefs, which he may not necessarily share, but which reflect a particular time and place. In this way, Furst’s novels attain a sense of the past that contributes to the atmosphere of his mysteries.