(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Alan Furst’s appeal has a good deal to do with his choice of setting. Though many spy novels have been written about World War II, most emphasized action, military intelligence, or the technical and scientific details of weaponry. Furst’s focus on psychology, atmosphere, and political relations between and within nation-states provides pleasures that are as intellectual as visceral.

Although inspired by Eric Ambler’s spy novels of the 1930’s and Graham Greene’s “entertainments” focusing on Cold War machinations, Furst is writing from the viewpoint of a later time period and evokes rather than shares in the passionate left-wing political allegiance of the two British novelists. Another British novelist of the Greene-Ambler generation, Anthony Powell , exerted a profound influence on Furst’s fiction. Powell’s sense of social history, interest in ordinary life during wartime, and ability to entwine discursive background with quick, terse dialogue are features emulated by Furst’s mature work. Interestingly, however, despite his admiration for these British writers and a general Britishness of tone noted by many reviewers in Furst’s work, Britain seldom, if ever, appears as a setting in his fiction.

The first two historical espionage books written by Furst, Night Soldiers and Dark Star, show the author immersing himself in the background of his books while also trying to communicate a compelling story. These novels serve as groundwork for their more seamless and faster-paced successors, starting with The Polish Officer. By Dark Voyage, Furst’s denouement involving a final chase through the Baltic Sea is as exciting as any action-thriller.

For most writers, historical information and description are background. For Furst, they are content, a substantial part of what the reader expects. He conducts massive research, from securing names and dates relevant to the settings of his stories to determining what cigars the characters would have smoked, what restaurants they might have eaten in, and what popular songs they might have heard.

Furst’s protagonists are always male and are almost always single. As with the traditional espionage or hard-boiled detective novel protagonists, they are loyal ultimately only to themselves, although they may be enveloped in a network of business and ideological associations. Furst’s protagonists differ, however, from those in the hard-boiled or traditional spy novel in that they are consciously intellectual and often cultured and have a keen sense of style. His protagonists are often active in the arts either as practitioners, like Jean Casson, or as afficionados like Jean Szara, the protagonist of Dark Star, whose name alludes to the Romanian Dadaist writer Tristan Tzara. Even Eric DeHaan, the Dutch sea captain who is the protagonist of Dark Voyage, is somebody who reads and reflects beyond his immediate circumstances. Furst’s protagonists are more detached and disaffiliated at the start of the novel than at the end. Often, they find themselves engaged in a moral or ideological sense during the course of the novel, whether because of a romantic attachment, an acquired sense of mission, or a dormant sense of morality that is awakened by the dire,...

(The entire section is 1348 words.)