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Mining the Dark Streets of the ’40s

Posted on 08 July 2011

By Courtney M. Holbrook

In his 20s, Alan Furst was addicted to mystery novels. He was living with his wife in a Pennsylvania farmhouse at the time, writing poetry. He realized that if he wrote five pages a day for 40 days, he could have his own mystery novel.

In 1983, Furst journeyed on the Danube River as a travel writer for Esquire Magazine. Watching life in a police state started an obsession for the lives of people under totalitarian control.  

In Paris, Furst decided he wanted to read a “panoramic style of novel about 1930’s spy agencies.” He could not find one. Furst realized there was “gold in the street and it was all for me.”

All these experiences led to the publication of Furst’s first historical spy thriller set in the 1930s, “Night Solders.” The intellectual yearning to write that “particular novel” set him up to become one of the premier thriller novelists working today, with 15 bestselling page-turners.

Furst’s most recent novel, “Spies of the Balkans,” was recently released in trade paperback. The author will give a reading from his new book at Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor on Saturday, July 9 at 6 p.m. 

“Spies of the Balkans” is a novel that combines the familiar with the unexpected. Set in 1940s Greece — which differs from Furst’s past settings in Western or Eastern Europe — the hero, Constantine “Costa” Zannis, is a police official in charge of political cases. As Italy attempts to invade, and Hitler swarms around Europe, Zannis can only watch as the catastrophe of a Nazi invasion approaches. Throughout, spies are everywhere; no one is safe.

“I wanted to write a novel about the Balkans, so I just started some outline of what I wanted,” Furst said. “And once I began, this extraordinary story emerged. I slowly began to understand what happened when Italy invaded and failed.”

It had all the elements of a Greek tragedy — Sophocles meeting Le Carré. Furst examines the destruction of Greek resistance, and the “almost foreordained demise” of Greek independence. At the same time, he keeps a foothold on plot and character, providing his readers with intrigue and a smart hero.

Furst’s own path to literary success was one of search and discovery, similar to that of his characters’ political revelations. After time spent as a poet and travel writer, he decided he wanted to write mystery novels. He had the ideas and the desire, but the writing was still unclear — a voice that needed to be located.

He found that voice in Paris. Furst had already written three of his historical espionage thrillers when he read Camus’ “The Stranger.” It awoke “an excitement” in him — and changed his writing style.

“It was in Europe, reading Camus, that I discovered the ‘existential thriller,’” Furst said. “He’s not typically described as a ‘thriller’ writer, but what is it if not a thriller? [The Stranger] is so spare, it taught me things I can’t quite describe.”

Camus taught Furst to write sparingly; to understand that terror and darkness can be found in the details; that minimalism can frighten more than extensive, unnecessary prose.

Although Furst is a native New Yorker who now lives in Sag Harbor, his time in France and his ability with French language and literature have earned him the title of “European” writer by publishers. This European fascination comes from the experiences of people in World War II, according to Furst.

“I think what Europe experienced in [World War II] is just almost unimaginable to many of us in America,” Furst said. “It’s what comes through in my character, Costa, the idea that he wants to protect people, but there’s just nothing he can do. And you have to think about that — there was nothing anyone could do. You had to worry about what would happen to your wives, daughters, your dog … We don’t face anything really like that here.”

Presently, Furst is working on another novel, which will once again focus around World War II. In his spare time, he reads the writers of the 1920s and ‘30s for pleasure, and nonfiction for research regarding his novels. And so far, he plans to continue waking to write at 7:30 a.m., and writing about the characters and experiences that consume him.

“I’m obsessed by this time period in a way that I have never been obsessed with anything. I can’t imagine it ever going away.”

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