Furst Among Equals: The Cinematic Spy Novels of Alan Furst

spies of warsaw

You won’t find Alan Furst’s early contemporary murder mysteries mentioned among his best sellers in the fly leaves of his books. By his own admission, they weren’t very good, and not what he was really interested in doing. One day he then went to look for a historical spy novel to read, and couldn’t find one. “Then I basically invented a genre, “he said.  “I couldn’t believe my fucking luck.”

If John Le Carre is the master of the Cold War spy novel, and latterly the machinations of unscrupulous big business in the developing world (The Constant Gardener), Alan Furst has the pre and wartime Europe fog of war sewn up. He describes his spy novels as “political adventure novels” – the spy novel wedded to the European existential novel, or “the spy novel with a heart.” He charts the conflicts, compromises, betrayals and doomed romances of intelligent people caught up in the march of history, brilliantly evoking time and place. Plot developments and character situations are subtle, layered with meaning, regret. Night Soldiers, for instance, takes its protagonist from a tiny Bulgarian village, which he flees after witnessing his brother brutally beaten to death for mocking the local fascists, to working for the Soviets in the Spanish Civil War. Aware Stalin’s latest purge is closing in, he flees again, evading the secret police across Europe, the war an ever present background threat.

Walter Shapiro of Time Magazine said of Dark Star: “Nothing can be like watching Casablanca for the first time, but Furst comes closer than anyone has in years.” Very apt, as he first saw the film as a child, and it resonated strongly with him. “It was magnetic,” he says. He captures the tension of living a secret life brilliantly, where ears are attuned for a different tread on the stair, or the crunch of softly rolling Gestapo wheels on the frozen snow in the blacked out street below. Furst attributes music as a big influence on the mood of his novels. He stated to Splice Today, “I came to realize that if you really want to know what the 1930’s are, you listen to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, then Django Reinhardt with Stephane Grapelli. Somewhere between those two…is the 1930’s (Europe).”

For a writer so steeped in the evocative nuances of European follies, it may come as a surprise to find that Alan Furst is a graduate of Pennsylvania State university, living in Sag harbour, Long Island. There he writes his novels in a converted garage in his garden, on an old electric IBM typewriter. His research is considerable. “I don’t just want my books to be about the ’30’s and ’40’s, I want them to read as if they had been written then. I think of them as ’40’s novels, written in the conservative narrative past.” His works are intensely cinematic, evoking for instance the 1969 Jean-Pierre Melville film Army Of Shadows (L’Armee Des Ombres), based on Joseph Kessel’s earlier novel blending his own gloomy wartime resistance experiences with cynical fictional exploits. Which is why it is a surprise to me that it has taken so long for any of his works to be adapted for the screen. Last Autumn, BBC1 screened an excellent and atmospheric adaptation of his novel Spies of Warsaw, starring David Tennant. French and German intelligence operatives are locked in a life-and-death struggle in the espionage arena. At the French embassy in Warsaw, a decorated war hero of the 1914 war, Colonel Jean-Francois Mercier (Tennant), is sucked into a world of abduction, betrayal and international intrigue from the diplomatic salons to the cities back alleys. Mercier simultaneously finds himself in a passionate love affair with Anna (Montgomery), a Parisian lawyer for the League of Nations. Their complicated love affair intensifies as German tanks drive through the Black Forest.

(this piece is illustrated with stills from that serial).

Spies of Warsaw


Tennant told the Huffington Post“As an actor who’s handed the script, to have that (the source novels) as a source material — it’s so beautifully researched and the details ooze off the page. You really get a sense of the period.” 

“…his (Mercier’s) morality comes up against his duty, because he’s working for people who are looking to appease Hitler, and he comes to a point where he realizes he can’t toe the party line any longer.”

Furst’s novels have been compared favourably to those of Eric Ambler and Graham Greene, and I would say Furst surpasses those authors by getting under the skin of his European characters. The soulful, dutiful resigned melancholy of The Polish Officer, the conflicted political police officer Costa Zannis in Spies Of The Balkans, and my favourite, bourgeois Parisian film producer and reluctant resistance operative, Jean Casson, hero of  The World At Night and Red Gold.

Casson makes gangster films, and like his characters, is a bit of a romantic dreamer. Married, he has a mistress naturellement, and enjoys a comfortable lifestyle. He affects an air of nonchalance and world weary diffidence, like his actor hero Jean Gabin, yet sticks his neck out for his Jewish screenwriter partner. During the occupation, his former army reservist commanding officer draws him into the resistance, while maintaining the facade of his former career, collaborating with a German filmmaker on controversy free entertainments for the sullen masses. In Red Gold, Casson has foreswarn escape and returned to Paris on a romantic whim, living under an alias in hand to mouth conditions, until once more taking up the call of resistance.


Wartime Paris leaps off the page, from the wood fuelled taxis and censored newspapers, to the German soldiers everwhere, jackbooted tourists, licking purloined butter “like ice cream on a stick.” Casson hides in the back alleys where the Boche dare not tread alone, a far cry from the glittering salons he took for granted, all the while dreaming of finding his lost love.

Paris is Furst’s talisman, all roads in his novels lead there. He describes it as a city where traditions endure, where culture is taken seriously, where writing is “an honourable thing.” The one common locale in Paris where all his heroes end up at some point is Brasserie Heininger, itself based on the famous Bistro Bofinger on the Rue de la Bastille (although it does not have a bullet hole in the ceiling, as Heininger does). Sometimes, characters from Furst novels will appear there in the background in other protagonists tales. The world of spys is not just car chases and shoot-outs: in Furst’s novels, words are weapons, and appeals to patriotism are made in vague insinuations over ersatz coffee  and sawdust cassoulet.

Spies of Warsaw

In answer to Splice Today, Alan Furst mused on why he writes about this period. “I used to sit in paris and I’d say to myself, how does it fall to me to write about the death of old Europe? Who am I? Where do I get off? It was some kind of arrogance on my part to do it, but I did it anyhow. There are many times in these books that I feel like I’m speaking for victims who don’t get to tell their own stories.”

Originally posted 2013-08-10 10:21:41. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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