Alan Furst exploded onto the espionage literary scene with his 1988 novel, Night Soldiers. A former Fulbright Teaching fellow at the Faculte des Lettres at the University of Montpellier, freelance writer for magazines, and author of four novels, Furst returned to France in the mid 1980s where he began writing for the International Herald Tribune. There he penned the first of his espionage novels, which has been followed in succession by ten further novels that take the reader into the interwar period in Eastern, Central, and Western Europe.
I must confess to a personal abiding admiration for that first novel, followed close upon by my love for The Polish Officer, from 1995. But each of Furst’s novels delivers a loving and endearing evocation of a particular time and place–Europe between the First and Second World Wars.
Dubbed “America’s preeminent spy novelist” by the New York Times, Furst, a native of Manhattan, has featured about every European capital you can think of, from Istanbul to Paris to Rome to Sofia. In his intricate, realistic, and believable narratives, Furst serves up protagonists (for he does not feature any one person in his novels) who risk their lives to fight against evil in the world. That specific evil is Nazi power on the eve of World War II.
A reviewer for the New York Times declared that Furst’s novels read “like the kind of book that might have been written in a Paris cafe where men with pencil-thin mustaches while away rainy winter afternoons, smoking Balkan Sobranie cigarettes and talking about the old days.”
Alan, it is such an honor to have you on Scene of the Crime. Good friends of mine in Paris recommended your novels to me in the early 90s. A writer of thrillers at the time, I was immediately swept away, loving your intelligent approach to the traditional spy novel. In your books I was happy to discover that the human element finally took pride of place over secret codes, cutouts, drop boxes, and other espionage tropes. Betrayal, raw and human, is your turf, just as much as interwar Europe.
I write about Europe, where I lived for around ten years. And it was while I was living in Paris fulltime that I started these novels.
What things about Europe between the wars make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
Because of great affection for Paris, and France, and Europe, I was really avid to write about it.
Did you consciously set out to use your location as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
I always knew it was the central character.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction?
Location is as central to fiction as it is to life.
How does your protagonist interact with his/her surroundings?
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
My novels are have been translated into 17 languages, so there’s some sense that ‘place’ is acceptable.
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
I have made mistakes in military usage—and heard about them from readers. Certain British bombers didn’t come on line until late in 1941—I have them a few months too early but (British) military history students will let you know when you’re wrong. And there are many other similar examples (a silencer on a revolver in The Foreign Correspondent. No, that won’t work.)
Of all your novels, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place?
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
I like the period writers—Eric Ambler and Graham Greene, especially Anthony Powell. I am surely influenced by Conrad, who wrote adventure stories about foreign places.
What’s next for your protagonist?
I don’t re-use protagonists, (exception: Red Gold) but minor characters often reappear—depends on the circumstances.
Thanks so much for taking the time to answer questions for Scene of the Crime. Good luck with your new novel, out next month, Spies of the Balkans.
Visit Alan Furst at his homepage.