Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Shhh! Alan Furst has a secret

For nearly twenty years, Alan Furst has been writing well-regarded espionage thrillers set in Europe in 1930s and 1940s. A few years ago, on the recommendation of a friend from Oxford University Press, I read one, The Polish Officer. It left me kind of flat. It wasn't bad—it just didn't ever quite engage me. But my regard for my friend's taste was such that when I was browsing recently in a used bookshop near my house, I picked up another one, The World at Night, and my faith was rewarded. It's a solid thriller, in a fully realized setting, managing to convey the frustration, anger, and sadness of France just after the start of the war without forcing the issue.
Furst's writing is good enough that he doesn't fall victim to that. Clunky sentences didn't stop me, and he didn't push too hard for emotional effect; the one fault he's guilty of is over-romanticizing his protagonist, Jean-Claude Casson, a film producer who stumbles into espionage. Casson is conflicted and uncertain, wondering, like all his friends, where the line falls between collaboration and merely attempting to get on with one's life under occupation. He's not a trained agent, and he makes mistakes. Yet he shares with James Bond the ability to always remain an idealized image of manliness—casually good-looking, well-dressed, irresistible to women. For example:

He ran in to the bathroom down the hall and stared into the mirror above the sink. Shit! Well, not much he could do about it now—his shirt was tired, his jacket unpressed. But he'd shaved carefully that morning—he always did—his hair simply looked vaguely arty when he avoided the barber, and his shoes had been good long ago and still were. It was, he thought, his good fortune to be one of those men who couldn't look seedy if he tried.

It's the bit about shaving that ruins it for me, the "he always did." It's too much. Let the guy just look lousy for once. It's the early days of World War II, for god's sake.

But that minor sin is more than balanced by Furst's ability to conjure up a believable wartime atmosphere, a complex plot, and real tension. Both this book and The Polish Officer successfully give the sense of wheels within wheels, layers of secrecy and knowledge that extend, and overlap, the circumscribed world and actions of Furst's protagonists. When Casson happens across an Englishman on a train platform in Spain who's surprisingly helpful, we're left to wonder whether the man was an agent of some sort—and we never learn. Much is left unknown. Characters enter and disappear. Maybe some die; maybe some are double agents. Furst resists the temptation to reveal, to tie things up neatly.

That's a part of what's best in the books, the sense that while the events of the book were, as they happened, matters of life and death to the characters, they might not have actually accomplished anything—probably didn't, to be honest. The war will go on, and more people will die, in public and in secret. People are small and insignificant when nations go about mass killing. But the characters continue risking their lives, much like believers continue to pray without demonstrable results, because to do otherwise ultimately becomes unthinkable.

1 comment:

  1. Perhaps meticulous grooming stands as a metaphor for, um, not getting killed every day in the, um, cold war against, um, disshevellment?-ed?-ness?