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Accidental Spies (and Spy Novelists)

By April Snellings

If you want proof of the thriller genre’s remarkable elasticity, look no further than the world of spy fiction. There’s an entire vein of espionage novels to suit practically any taste, from classic literary fiction (Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent; Graham Greene’s The Quiet American) to page-turners steeped in blood and testosterone (Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne series).

Somewhere on that spectrum you’ll find Alan Furst, the reigning master of historical spy novels. Furst downplays the literary elements that have consistently earned him critical praise since the publication of Night Soldiers in 1988—“I’m the guy you want to read on an airplane,” he says—and he has little use in his own novels for the gadgets-and-gunplay school of spycraft popularized by Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. Instead, Furst has found his creative home in a series of intensely atmospheric espionage tales set in German-occupied Europe in the years leading up to America’s entry into World War II. Furst’s novels generally eschew the highly trained operatives who take center stage in most spy fiction; instead, his characters tend to be accidental spies—ordinary people caught up in a war they didn’t choose but can’t ignore.

This month’s UNDER OCCUPATION continues that tradition, placing a crime writer at the center of an increasingly elaborate plot to transmit valuable German technical information to Britain’s Special Operations Executive. French novelist Paul Ricard stumbles into espionage entirely by chance—Ricard is little more than a bystander on the streets of Paris when a dying man secretly passes him a blueprint after being shot by Gestapo officers—but he finds the French Resistance suits him, especially when he falls for his handler, a beautiful, mysterious spy named Leila. With the help of his friend Kasia, a queer bank robber-turned-Resistance fighter who helps Ricard out of at least as many predicaments as she gets him into, Ricard must navigate the murky, often-deadly world of subterfuge, spycraft, and doublecrosses—all while Nazi officers draw ever closer to uncovering his activities.

While UNDER OCCUPATION is set mostly in France, it was inspired by the fierce Polish Resistance movement that also informed Furst’s much-lauded 1995 novel, The Polish Officer.

Photo credit: Catherine V. Frase

“When the war started in ’39, it was really incredible how hard the Poles fought,” Furst says. “They certainly fought harder than the French. They never had the kind of pretend political administration [like France’s Vichy government] that other occupied countries had… It was very hard to get rid of [the Germans], but the Poles never stopped fighting. And so I became particularly interested in the Poles and what they did, and happened upon the story of the organized Polish Resistance that grew up particularly in the Polish émigré community around Lille, France, where the principal occupation is mining, and the Poles had been miners for a long time. When their country, or the country they were working in, was taken by the Germans, they started to resist, and they did exactly what they do in UNDER OCCUPATION.”

In this case, resistance took the form of communicating information about German submarine capabilities to British forces. Polish laborers, forced to work in shipyards building German U-boats, took it upon themselves to smuggle blueprints, torpedo firing mechanisms, and other German tech to the Allies via a complex network of agents who moved the contraband through Nazi-occupied Europe via passenger train, clandestine night flights, or pretty much any other way one could travel cross country.

So when Ricard realizes the importance of the document he’s been given, he knows it’s his moral duty to get it to someone who can use it. UNDER OCCUPATION takes place roughly over the course of a year, as each mission Ricard undertakes leads to another, more dangerous one. He gives up a relatively comfortable life as a successful novelist—well, as comfortable as a life can be under Nazi occupation—to become a man who must constantly look over his shoulder, who can never be sure if the knock on his door is an old friend or a Gestapo officer.

Photo credit: Catherine V. Frase

That sense of moral responsibility is another hallmark of Furst’s novels. While Greene and John le Carré explored the hazy ethics of espionage, Furst’s characters are on firmer philosophical ground. Furst says that moral clarity is a big part of what’s drawn him to the backdrop of Nazi-occupied Europe for 15 novels and counting.

“It was good versus evil,” he says. “There was no doubt in anybody’s mind what was what. It wasn’t like, well, maybe we should understand these people. Not in 1939—they didn’t try to understand them at all. They wanted to understand [Nazis] only to the degree of eliminating them and getting them the hell out of their country. You couldn’t pay me enough to write a book about the ’50s or the ’60s, because World War II is the good war. For America, it was one of our really great times.”

While Furst is now considered America’s preeminent author of historical spy fiction, he came to the genre almost by accident while he was living in France in the ’80s. He decided he wanted to read “a panoramic spy novel about the 1930s,” only to find that such a novel hadn’t been written yet. Furst, who had already published several standalones that didn’t exactly make waves in the publishing world, decided to change that.

Alan Furst
Photo credit: Catherine V. Frase

“Perhaps rather arrogantly, I thought, well, to hell with that, I’ll write it,” he remembers. “That’s exactly what happened. I had written books before—not very good books, to tell you the honest truth. They say novelists don’t come in until their 40s, and that was certainly true of me. I was able to write and publish books earlier than that, but really, they’re not very good. And the other thing is, I didn’t have what I call traction. That’s a big word for me in writing. That’s when you really know what you’re doing and where you’re going and how it all works. So there I was in Paris wanting to write a panoramic spy novel, and I wrote Night Soldiers, which is, I think, a very good book. It’s a big book, because I never thought I’d write about the subject again, and so I had to cover this, cover that, cover the other thing.”

As it happens, Furst did return to the historical spy genre—three years later, with 1991’s Dark Star. Thirty-one years and more than a dozen novels after Night Soldiers, he’s still writing WWII-era spy novels—though his next book will offer several key departures from his typical formula. Besides featuring a different sort of hero, Furst’s next novel will take place after America’s entry into the war.

“This book is about a professional soldier, of British birth but French residence,” Furst says. “It’s different—there’s a lot of fighting in this book. I sort of surprised myself. And the other thing I did with the new book, it’s about 1944, and that really changes things. This is all like a chemical reaction. You add a certain thing—the reagent—and something happens.”

Furst points out that 1944 is dramatically different than other years in the war; in fact, he says that “each year of the war is almost like a character in and of itself.” He also reveals that the novel, tentatively titled Dark Alliance, will feature an American character—another rarity for him. The book concerns the end of the occupation phase of the war (fierce fighting continued for several months after the liberation of German-occupied Europe), and Furst says the book has been fun to write, even if history has lobbed a hand grenade at one of his hallmark stylistic devices.

“The only trouble is, I like to write about autumn particularly, but Paris was liberated on the 25th of August,” Furst says. “As a historical novelist, I certainly can’t shake that, so it’s kind of a summer-in-Paris book. It is a change for me.”


April Snellings
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