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Posts Tagged ‘Alan Furst’

herooffranceMathieu is his nom de guerre, and, like many of Alan Furst’s leading men, he’s something of a loner, a considered risk-taker who hides his intelligence and sophistication behind a quiet demeanor. He’s good at sizing up people, figuring out if they can be trusted. “And I’d better be,” he says, ”because I can only be wrong once.”

Mathieu is the capable leader of a small Resistance cell in A Hero of France (Random House, digital galley), Furst’s excellent new novel of the shadowy world of espionage. In previous books, he has focused mostly on the twilight years leading up to the war, but here it is March of 1941, and German-occupied Paris is dark and under curfew. Mathieu and his cell help rescue downed RAF pilots and crew members, hiding them in safe houses, securing false identity passes, providing disguises and escorting them to safety — perhaps by train through Vichy France and then to Spain, or in the back of a truck to the countryside and coast to await safe passage to England. It is dangerous, heart-stopping work, but these ordinary people — a professor, a nurse, a schoolteacher, a teen with a bicycle, a widow with a bureaucratic friend, a nightclub owner with connections — prove themselves over and over in extraordinary circumstances. But their actions can only go unnoticed for so long. A fatuous Brit wants to run the network from afar, encouraging riskier acts of sabotage. A German police detective is looking for an informer to penetrate the cell. Then there are the soldiers who will trip a man for no reason, and young street thugs playing at extortion.

The narrative is episodic, and Furst splices tense, action-filled scenes with interludes of relative calm. Mathieu begins a love affair with a neighbor, and adopts — or is adopted by — a Belgian shepherd dog. The writing is atmospheric: a crippled plane tries to land in silvery moonlight, lovers share secrets behind blackout curtains, a cafe owner shrugs when asked about the Resistance. “Monsieur, do you know what goes on in the cafes of Paris? Everything. Of course, one may have a glass of wine, a coffee, and something to eat, but there is more. Love affairs begin, love affairs end, swindlers meet their victims, victims meet their lawyers. But, mostly, the cafe is a place for people to go.” Including the heroes of France.

everyonebraveThe London Blitz is a staple of wartime novels and films, offering a dramatic backdrop for stories of courage and romance. The writer Kate Atkinson called it “the dark beating heart” of her novel Life after Life, and the same can be said of Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave is Forgiven (Simon & Schuster, digital galley). His fierce re-imagining of the Nazi bombs shattering buildings and lives is both wide-screen and close-up. Perhaps because his story is loosely based on the letters and wartime experiences of his grandparents, it feels immediate and personal.

England’s entry into the war in 1939 is a call to arms for Britain’s youth, including 18-year-old debutante Mary North, fresh out a Swiss boarding school. Her notion of a glamorous wartime job is quickly dashed by her assignment to a school whose students are being evacuated to the countryside. But not all children are suitable evacuees, including some who are physically disabled or mentally challenged, along with Zachary, the 10-year-old child of a black American musician. Mary convinces nice-guy Tom Shaw, a school administrator turned down for enlistment, to let her teach a small class of these outsiders. Tom and Mary begin a whirlwind courtship that is threatened both by Mary’s attraction to Tom’s best friend, Alistair Heath, an art restorer before he joined up, and the war itself, which sends Alistair to France and those left behind to air raid shelters. Eventually, Alistair will wind up in Malta, under siege by Axis forces, and Mary and her friend Hilda will volunteer as ambulance drivers.

Cleave’s harrowing descriptions of the homefront and battlefield are leavened by witty dialogue and letters among the characters. He also raises issues of race and class that seem shocking by today’s standards. Mary, Tom, Alistair, Hilda, Zachary — and a host of others — come across as complex and believable. You remember the stubborn  pride of Zachary’s father, the pursed lips of Mary’s mother, the camaraderie between Alistair and a fellow soldier, the resilience of small children, the bravery of those scared to death. You won’t forget Everyone Brave is Forgiven.

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furstDecember, 1937. The snow is falling in New York City as a lawyer visiting from Paris looks over his shoulder to see  if he is being followed. It’s also snowing in Madrid as a middle-aged museum curator waits nervously to be questioned by the authorities. The two men’s fates are soon linked in the atmospheric Midnight in Europe (Random House, digital galley), in which Alan Furst once again illuminates ordinary people caught up in extraordinary times as Hitler’s shadow looms ever larger. Here, the Spanish Civil War serves as a precursor of what is to come, and Spanish emigre Christian Ferrar, who works for an international law firm in Paris, agrees to help the Spanish Republic obtain much-needed arms to fight Franco’s fascists. There is an eye-opening train journey through industrial Germany in the company of an arms dealer wanted by the Gestapo, and later a more harrowing trip to Odessa and Poland in which a train is hijacked. Moments of heart-in-your-throat terror alternate with scenes in Paris nightclubs and bedrooms that whisper of betrayal and romance. No one is better than Furst at evoking this midnight hour before war plunges Europe into darkness.

twisted

Readers of S. J. Bolton’s gripping Lacey Flint novels know that the secretive London detective rarely goes with the flow. In A Dark and Twisting Tide (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley), she’s again risking life and limb, first by “wild-swimming” in the Thames, where’s she’s living on a houseboat, and then by going after a serial killer who is leaving the shrouded, drowned corpses of young women for her to find. She’s also risking her heart, growing closer to cop Mark Joesbury, whose undercover work takes him away for days at a time. Lacey goes undercover, too, disguising herself as an Afghan refugee to try and find out more about a possible human-trafficking ring targeting the tight-lipped immigrant community. Old friends and new enemies complicate matters, and then a nightmare comes true when she finds herself once again at the mercy of the river and a relentless pursuer who swims like a mermaid and attacks like a shark.

alldayAlafair Burke’s complex new thriller All Day and a Night (HarperCollins, digital galley) takes it title from prison lingo for a life sentence with no parole. That’s what presumed serial killer Anthony Amaro has been serving the last 18 years, which gives him a solid alibi for the murder of a Brooklyn psychotherapist. But because the body has the signature of Amaro’s old kills, it leads to the D.A. and police ordering a “fresh look” at his case. Is a copycat at work or was Amaro wrongfully convicted in the first place? As Amaro’s celebrity lawyer argues to get him released, Burke’s series detective Ellie Hatcher and her partner begin an investigation that takes them back two decades to the murder of a handful of prostitutes in Utica. Also investigating, but for Amaro’s side, is young lawyer Carrie Blank, whose half-sister Donna was one of the victims. Both Ellie and Carrie have conflicted feelings that spill over into their personal lives as old secrets come to light and loyalties are tested. Coincidences abound, but Burke keeps tensions high until almost the very end.

vertigo

How well do you know Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo? You might want to refresh your memory before starting Martha Grimes’ clever Vertigo 42 (Scribner, digital galley), in which Scotland Yard’s Richard Jury makes some dizzying connections between murders old and new. After meeting widower Tom Williamson at Vertigo 42, a London bar atop a financial-district high-rise, Jury takes off for Devon to look into the death of Williamson’s wife Tess 17 years ago. Did she fall — as the police think — or was she pushed — as her husband believes? And what, if anything, does childless Tess’s death have to do with the death five years earlier of a schoolgirl who fell into the country estate’s empty swimming pool while her pals were playing hide-and-seek? Meanwhile, Jury’s visit to his pal Melrose Plant’s country home presents him with the puzzle of a lost dog and the death of a young woman who fell from a nearby tower. Grimes juggles the surfeit of plots and the quirky cast with her usual ease, tipping her hat to Hitchcock and to previous Jury tales (there are 22) while readers’ heads spin.

strangerDetective constable Maeve Kerrigan often finds her brilliant boss, DI Josh Derwent, crude and rude. But no way she thinks he’s a murderer. Still, in Jane Casey’s sterling The Stranger You Know (St. Martin’s digital galley), Kerrigan’s  on the inside in the investigation of a serial killer who kills attractive young women in their homes, but Derwent’s shut out by their superiors. Not only does he fit the profile of a trustworthy stranger a woman might invite in her home, he also was the prime suspect in the long-ago, unsolved murder of his classmate Angela Poole. The new crime scenes have an uncanny similarity to Angela’s. Still loyal to Derwent, a wary Maeve continues the search for the “Gentleman Killer,” even as a stalker from her past reappears. Or has the killer targeted her?

someoneBrian McGilloway returns to Derry, Northern Ireland for the second Lucy Black thriller to be published in this country this year, after Little Girl Lost. In Someone You Know (HarperCollins/Witness Impulse, digital galley), Lucy’s assignment to the public protection squad again brings her into a murder investigation when an at-risk teen is killed, her body tied to the railroad tracks. If the train hadn’t been delayed, it would have destroyed the crime scene, and the death slated as a suicide. But someone is preying on Derry’s girls, even as they escape their dysfunctional homes to party with their friends, unaware just how close the enemy lurks. The daughter of two cops — one her chief superintendent boss, the other now suffering from dementia — Lucy has an affinity for the vulnerable that serves her well. A third book is on its way.

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Alan Furst’s historical espionage novels unreel like classic black-and-white films, so it’s fitting that Frederic Stahl, the hero of Mission to Paris (Random House, digital galley via NetGalley) is a handsome Hollywood actor. Loaned out by Warner Bros. to Paramount France in the summer of 1938, Stahl will play a soldier returning from the Great War, a role like many of his others, “a warm man in a cold world.” But because he was born in Vienna, and Germany is now allied with Austria, Stahl is of particular interest to the Nazi propagandists who want to use him in their “rapprochement” campaign with the French. Repelled by the Germans and Hitler, Stahl takes on another role for the American embassy, passing on information gleaned from cocktail parties, “pillow talk” and a Berlin film festival. Not surprisingly, he finds he has talents as a spy and becomes caught up in more pre-war intrigue threatening the cast and crew of his film as they shoot on location in Morocco and Hungary.

This is all familiar, beloved territory for Furst fans. No one is better at evoking the shadows falling across Europe “as the lights go out,” and ordinary souls reacting to extraordinary circumstances. A few characters from previous books make appropriate cameos, and, of course, there is the requisite scene at the Brasserie Heininger and its most-requested Table 14. The atmosphere is thick with secrets, romance, unease, suspicion. Stahl plays the lead, but Paris is again the star.

Joseph Kanon expertly evokes the crossroads of Europe and Asia in Istanbul Passage (Atria Books, digital galley via NetGalley). It’s 1945, and the war is pretty much over, but Turkey continues its precarious balancing act of “neutrality,” spying on everyone. American expat businessman Leon Bauer, whose hospitalized German-Jewish wife has retreated from the real world after witnessing a tragedy, is an”irregular,” an off-the-books occasional spy. But then an appointed meeting with a Romanian defector that should have been routine goes awry, shots are fired, and suddenly Leon is a secret agent for real. “The  lies got easier, one leading to the next until you believed them yourself.”

Kanon’s story is as layered as Istanbul itself with history, religion, politics and culture. The Americans want to find the leak in their intelligence headquarters. The Russians want the Romanian, implicated in wartime atrocities. The Turkish police are looking for a killer, and the Turkish secret service is keeping tabs on the old boats in the harbor filled with Jewish refugees looking for safe passage to Palestine. How much is a human life worth, and does it matter if that life belongs to a former enemy? Leon has choices to make as an American, a spy, a husband and a lover, but all are risky, physically and morally. Kanon is right there with Furst and le Carre in depicting the spies’ world of smoke and mirrors, way more than fifty shades of gray.

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My heart always beats a little faster upon spying a new novel by Alan Furst.  It’s no secret that I am a longtime fan of Furst, “who uses the shadowy world of espionage to illuminate history and politics with  immediacy.”

I wrote that in a review of one of his earlier works, Dark Star or maybe The Polish Officer, and it’s since become a bookjacket blurb, along with “Some books you read. Others you live. They seep into your dreams and haunt your waking hours until they become the stuff of memory and experience.”  Also, “imagine Casablanca as written by John le Carre and you get some idea of the effect of Furst’s cinematic tales, which take place in the late 1930s and early ’40s. The lights are going out across Europe, and we see them flickering in Paris and Prague, Moscow and Berlin, Warsaw and the Ukraine.”

Yes, the guy is that good. How do I know? Because, about nine years ago,  after more than a decade of singing his praises to whomever would listen (I once spent a good portion of an interview with David Halberstam discussing Furst), his novels started climbing the best-seller lists and profiles appeared in news magazines and the New York Times. Vintage reissued his books in handsome paperbacks, and Furst reviewed a le Carre novel for the Sunday book review. (I’m not taking credit — it all goes to Furst. Still, at the time, I thought, “at last, mission accomplished).

But now comes the backlash. Relative newcomers to the Furst bandwagon, who have only read a handful of his 11 books, are starting to question his mastery. They quibble that his new Spies of the Balkans, like its predecessor The Spies of Warsaw, isn’t up to standards. Too formulaic, they say..

Excuse me. If by formulaic, they mean an intelligent, well-written atmospheric story featuring fairly ordinary citizens making extraordinary efforts to stop the Nazi domination of Europe, well, yes, Furst might be repeating himself. But northern Greece and the port city of Salonika in 1940 is new territory for me, as is police officer Costa Zannis’ adventures trying to forge an escape route for refugees through the hostile Balkans to Turkey, aided by counterparts in Berlin and Zagreb. The air is again thick with moral ambiguity. Yes, Costa has some interesting romantic liaisons, as have other Furst heroes, and even more interesting enemies. But he also has a true allegiance to his family and birthplace, making him less of an idealistic free spirit caught up by the fortunes of  war. 

Maybe this this novel isn’t quite as powerful to me as some of Furst’s others, but I’ve only read it once, quickly flipping pages. Now I can look forward to rereading it, savoring scenes I rushed through, admiring how well Furst can sketch an entire character in a couple of sentences or a snippet of dialogue. For example, there’s “the friend of a friend,” who looks to Zannis “like a French king; prosperously stout, with fair, wavy hair parted to one side, creamy skin, a prominent nose, and a pouch that sagged beneath his chin.”  A little later, the man instructs Zannis, “When you describe your adventures in France, as no doubt you will have to, I would take it as a personal favor that you remain silent about this particular chapter, about me.”

Zannis does, but not Furst. He specializes in these secret chapters of a forgotten history. 

Open Book:  I met Alan Furst at a book convention some years ago and he later sent me a signed hardcover edition of the first of his historical espionage novels, 1988’s Night Soldiers, after learning that my mass market paperback was falling apart.  I bought my copy of Spies of the Balkans (Random House).

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