Over the course of writing 10 books —from through last year’s Night Soldiers Spies of (1988) Warsaw—American novelist Alan Furst has established himself as reigning master of a very specific genre of thriller. His books recount in evocative and satisfying detail the lives and intrigues of the soldiers, spies, diplomats and rogues who fought Europe’s military and intelligence “shadow war” in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
What so fascinates you about Europe in the lead-up to World War II?
That period is tremendously rich territory for a novelist. The gulf between genuine idealism and pure psychopathic villainy at that point in the century is truly extraordinary. I think people hadn’t yet learned to be quite so slippery as they’ve become, and that led to an assortment of people who really beg to become fictional characters— deluded Marxists, royalists, fascists, every kind of thug and every kind of hero. When you have evil on the scale that existed then, the people who resist have to be strong, clever and determined. That makes for great stories.
Why did you choose to write what you’ve dubbed “historical espionage fiction”?
I really didn’t set out to invent a new genre, it’s just that I wanted to read well-done novels about the people who fought the “shadow war,” and there really weren’t any. I was astonished. And when I started writing those stories, people seemed interested in reading about the people and events that shaped that rich and important period.
What leads you to tell particular kinds of stories?
I work in a very specific way. I pick a particular country, then I learn that country’s political history—and believe me, that takes a long time, because the places I write about have long, complicated and often confusing political histories. Once I understand the history, I can see where the secret operations could have taken place. And then I go looking for the real ones. And then I find the characters who might have taken part in those operations. It’s a blend of fact and fiction.
I want to tell a story that’s interesting and engaging—I’m an entertainment novelist, after all. But there’s something else. While the actual words never appear in my books, I also ask the reader, “What would you have done in the same circumstances?” Think about it: How quickly would you or I get involved in a resistance movement if it became necessary here, today?
How important is research to your writing process?
I do a tremendous amount of exhaus tive research, because a high level of accuracy has to be a part of these books. The period I write about was a military period, a time when the military was transcendent, and the details have to be as dead-on as I can make them.
So the research is an ongoing process, and one that I enjoy immensely. I really love military history, and I think it’s the most interesting thing to read in the world. Because therein lies the truth about nations and cultures—the way in which a culture handles military conflict is a sort of a Rorschach test; it really shows us the things that culture holds to be most important.
In terms of researching the intelligence aspects of a story, I’m kind of a “garage” intelligence historian, having done the reading over the years about my period. I know it pretty well by now. Of course, I couldn’t tell you anything about what happened in the 1950s—that’s John le Carré’s territory.
How are you able to evoke the sights and sounds of prewar Europe?
A lot of it is osmosis. I lived in France for about 10 years, and I was able to soak up a lot of what remained of the cultural atmosphere of the prewar period. I also do research that’s not really research— things like listening to music and watching old black-and-white movies from that period. As I watch, I just let all the little things soak in—the way men wore their hats, the way people talked, the way the music sounded. People acted and interacted differently then, and watching the movies and listening to the music and reading the books certainly helps me evoke that time and place.
Why do many of your characters seem reluctant participants in the great events that engulf them?
In part that’s a conscious decision, and it’s also because the characters determine it themselves as events play out. While they may be initially reluctant, the characters ultimately become involved. That’s because few people during that period could choose to do nothing; they didn’t have that option. You could be a hero or a villain or a fugitive, but you couldn’t just do nothing.
Do you have a special affinity for the everyday people who risked everything to resist fascism?
I certainly do. I’m an anti-fascist novelist, make no mistake about it.
A lot of people chose to get involved, to help in the struggle. Did they all have weapons in their hands? No, but you don’t have to be armed to be in a resistance movement. There were many who fought with small acts of defiance—like the French policeman who was ordered to take part in a roundup of Jews, but after leaving home returned because he’d “forgotten” his hat. By the time he retrieved it and returned to where the roundup was to take place, he was too late to take part. That’s an act of personal resistance.
Why is Paris central to many of your stories?
Paris was the emotional and intellectual heart of Europe in that period, a symbol of idealism and art and intellectual freedom. When the Germans occupied the city, it was as though Paris had been kidnapped; people killed themselves out of despair for what the occupation of “The City of Light” would mean. And, on a more personal level, I love the city. It’s a truly wonderful place.
Are you comfortable with favorable comparisons of your work to that of Graham Greene and Eric Ambler?
That’s very flattering, of course. I think [the comparisons] are made partly because my novels are really 1940s books, and people don’t often write those anymore. And that’s too bad, because the novels of that period are wonderfully engrossing and literary.
I didn’t start out to be a novelist; I just wanted to write these books. I didn’t even put my picture on the first two, because I didn’t think I look like the guy who would write those types of books—you know, a distinguished older gentleman with a shock of white hair and a white beard, a walking stick and an Irish wolfhound.
Do you see echoes of late 1930s and early 1940s intrigue and nationalism in modern-day Europe?
Not really. Even before World War II there were those who were saying, “We must stop fighting, because every time we go to war we destroy everything. If we don’t find a better way to do things, we’ll all eventually end up with nothing.” So even then there were movements promoting a single European currency, open borders and even a common language. And after the war the widespread desire to avoid another devastating continent-wide conflict helped bring about the creation of the European Union.
Having said that, though, we understand that Europeans have long memories. War is a European virus; it’s in their bloodstreams and always will be, because every time they redraw a national boundary, they leave groups of people on the wrong sides of the line. That breeds revanchism, the burning desire to win back what’s seen as national territory. And that, of course, can breed war.
And a lot of my writing does resonate if you substitute the Middle East or Asia for Europe. I don’t mean for it to resonate, but it does, because we know the price people paid in the 1930s and 1940s for the bad decisions their leaders made. And we’re not immune.
What other stories would you most like to tell?
The era I’ve chosen to write about is such an incredibly rich period that it seems unlikely I’ll run out of material. Every time I do research for one book, I find stories for three more.
Originally published in the May 2009 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.