Spy games

By CLEA SIMON  |  June 10, 2008

“Sip the wine, taste the food, find everyone fascinating — a good motto for diplomacy.”
She shook her head. “I guess that’s one way to save the world.”
“Yes, one way,” he said. “After the fish.”

Most often compared to Graham Greene and Eric Ambler, Furst is, like them, a master of the minutiae of the spy’s life. At 67 a generation younger, he draws on research rather than real-life experience, but the worlds he re-creates are as solid, as damp and clammy, as one can imagine the originals must have been.

These re-imagined cities put him at the head of the next generation of espionage authors, notably Laurie R. King and C.J. Sansom, who have tackled similar territory recently, King with Touchstone and Sansom with Winter in Madrid. In Touchstone, set in 1926, King uses an American to infiltrate an English country weekend in the hope of uncovering a spy. The fear of Bolshevism, of an English revolution, lends urgency as the aristocracy seeks to prop up a class system shaken by the previous war. The shadow of fascism looms more directly over Winter in Madrid, as an English veteran, wounded at Dunkirk, finds himself serving at the embassy in Spain, 1940, immediately following Franco’s triumph. Order has been restored, at a terrible price, and rumors about a lost public school classmate, who had fought for the Republic, complicate the situation as England labors to keep Spain out of the war.

What sets these books apart, Furst most prominently among them, is their grasp of the complexity of these situations. Although it is common to look back on World War II as the last good war, Furst in particular revels in the ambiguities. Mercier’s own uncle, for example, writes “right-wing pamphlets.”

Showing all sides can bog a book down. Reviewing The Foreign Correspondent in The New York Times, Alex Berenson complained about a lack of “moral depth.” The Spies of Warsaw is a better book, more immediate, but it also presents lives measured out in coffee spoons. People chitchat at embassy functions and contemplate civilian life (“oh, the taxes”). In hindsight, this normalcy is poignant, and Mercier’s clear-eyed appraisal of the growing threat makes it more so, as he finds himself standing apart in church and, again, in a boisterous Parisian brasserie, wondering, “What would happen to these people . . . if war came here?”

On a more mundane level, Furst, despite the elegant restraint of his prose, can be repetitious. It depends on the reader whether it is impressionistic fugue or simple laziness to read of a woman with “a face that suggested, somehow, sensuality — a slight downward curve of the nose, full-lipped mouth” and then, not long after, to see her again, “the slight downward curve of her nose and heavy lips suggesting sensuality.” Although the following sentence — “Suggesting it to him, certainly” — may imply intent. But of such details is Furst’s canon built, layer upon layer. We see, we feel, we chat with our neighbor, waiting for the inevitable next course.

ALAN FURST | Brattle Theatre, 40 Brattle Street, Cambridge | June 26 | 6 pm | $5 | tickets available at Harvard Book Store | 617.661.1515

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