Thursday, April 28, 2005

Alan Furst: Dark Voyage

There is a phenomenon in life known as Murphy's Law; in England it is sometimes called Sod's Law. If you know nothing about it, you can read the details here, but the general principle is that, if something can go wrong, it will; generally at the most inopportune moment.

It seemed to me, a couple of years ago, that Murphy's Law had begun to operate, big-time, in the career of Alan Furst. But in some respects it now turns out that I was wrong.

What happened was this: Alan Furst began writing thrillers about thirty years ago. He seems to keep fairly quiet about the first four (they are not listed on the 'Also by Alan Furst' page in his latest), so perhaps he feels that they are not up to his normal high standard. But by the time he wrote Night Soldiers (published in the UK in 1988) he was well into his stride.

All of Furst's books are set in and around the second world war, and many of them are located in occupied France, chiefly Paris. According to his interview with Robert Birnbaum, Furst has lived in Paris for some time (though he is, I believe, Canadian in origin). And you don't have to read very much of Furst to discover than he is enormously well informed about Europe in general, and the history of the second world war in particular. The books are really quite stunning in their grasp of events, and in their portrayal of human beings as they behave under the imminent threat of capture, torture and death.

So far so good. But up to about 2002, Furst remained something of an unknown. He had never had a really big seller, and frankly was never likely to, because his books are much too subtle and demanding for the average Joe. And if that sounds condescending, tough: it's simply true. The typical Jack Higgins reader is not going to find Furst easy to read: in order to appreciate Furst, you need a much more detailed knowledge of European history than the average sophomore is likely to possess.

But then in 2000 (as near as I can figure), Furst changed his publishers in the UK. He left HarperCollins and went to Orion, which first published him under the Gollancz imprint (Kingdom of Shadows) and now under Weidenfeld and Nicolson (Blood of Victory and Dark Voyage).

And where, you may be asking, does Murphy's Law come into all this? Well, it comes in right here. When Orion took Furst over, they gradually seem to have realised that they had got themselves a real gem. So for his next book they decided to splash out some money, with displays in Waterstone's windows and stuff like that. But, er, there was a problem. Murphy's Law dictated that Furst's next book (Blood of Victory ), on which so much publicity money would be spent, and on which so many hopes had been built, would not be all that good.

And I have to say that I found it most disappointing. I didn't even finish it. Of course, it may just have been me. But at least one reviewer on amazon UK agreed with me.

Anyway, it was with some trepidation that I picked up Dark Voyage. And fortunately, all is well.

Perhaps it will simplify things if I say that Dark Voyage is about as good as anyone could reasonably expect a novel to be. It tells an interesting story (set, of course, in the early years of the second world war); the characters are all too human, and constitute a wonderful sample of various nations; and the background is totally convincing (though Furst does not hesitate to bend the historical facts to fit his fiction if necessary, because this is a work of imagination, after all). And finally, the work is genuinely suspenseful: with ordinary thrillers writers you are never in much doubt that the good guys will win in the end, but with Furst, dammit, you are never quite sure.

The reason why you are never quite sure is because the author never has the slightest illusions about the enemy. Furst, being exceptionally well versed in European history, knows full well that, at the time he is writing about, the Germans were the nastiest and shittiest people on the face of the earth; with the exception, of course, of the Japanese, who contrived, somehow, to be worse.

I make no comment, please note, about the Germans and Japanese of today. Except to say that I am quite sure that they are now entirely different: they gladly help old ladies to cross the road, and they devote the whole of their spare time to good works among the poor and needy. They shed sweetness and light wherever they go. But in the second world war, to put it as politely as possible, they were not very nice.

Dark Voyage is warmly recommended. Better still, start with Night Soldiers and work your way to the present from there.

There is an official web site for Alan Furst, but it has one of those fancy Javascript (or some such) intros, and even if you skip that then the rest of it doesn't work properly; at least not on my browser. You may have more luck.


Anonymous said...

I'm glad to see that you're spreading some love for Alan Furst. I came across "Dark Voyage" by accident and raced through the rest of his books. I can't understand why he's not more popular--but as you say, the reader has to bring a certain knowledge of WWII-era Europe to the table to fully understand/enjoy his work. Like Patrick O'Brian or James Ellroy, Furst is a genre writer who transcends genre. The comparison to Ellroy is especially apt, I think--As in Ellroy's "LA quartet," Furst's Paris-centric novels use a particular place and time to explore the dark side of the human condition.

Debra Young said...

I discovered "Kingdom of Shadows" while browsing a bookstore, was immediately captured by the "blue" tone of the opening and hunted up "The Polish Officer" as soon as I could. He'd won a new fan. I'm glad he's getting well-deserved attention at last.

Anonymous said...

You're right, Furst is very good indeed. The only trouble is that when his attention to period detail *does* fail, it jars badly. The Amazon reviewer mentioned the "For he's a jolly good fellow" gaffe, but there are others, mainly to do with military hardware. OK, only us nerds would spot them, but he has (I forget in which books) things like: Lancaster bombers attacking the Rotterdam docks in daylight in 1940, two years before the plane entered service; and "Josef Stalin" tanks - a late WWII model - being unloaded in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War. The thing is, he likes to throw in these bits of detail, but would be better off just saying "bombers" or "tanks" if he isn't going to get it right.

An interesting comparison would be the novels of British writer Robert Ryan, who deals with similar themes - his achilles heel is period dialogue, with 1940s British upper-crust types saying things like "O.K." and "Yeah, right". Agsin, it spoils that necessary "suspension of disbelief", which is a pity, because, like Furst, he's a good writer.

Anonymous said...

I've read most of Alan Furst novels and I think they're brilliant. I agree that Blood of Victory wasn't the best but Dark Voyage is great, Three things he's far too cautious about his left wing characters. He clearly isn't a socialist but during that period many people were and although Stalinists have a grat deal to answer for the Red Army did break the back of the the Germany army in Russia. Many communists were resistors and indeed fought in the British Army. Ask yourself why Churchill wasn't elected after the War maybe it had some thing to do with the way in which he surpressed the miners strike in the 20s. Workers have long memories. His women are often tarts with hearts which is ok but a bit patronising. The British are always stiff upper lipped and brave. Flattering but my family who fought did so because there was no choice and they hated the idea of Nazis in England. However many of the upper crust would have fallen over themselves to welcome them. All that said I like Alan Furst humane approach to people in general and his willingness to portray the courage of "ordinary" people.

Anonymous said...

i've just discovered Furst and he is quite wonderfull in what i've read so far. Im not that well versed in pre ww2 technology so a glitch or too doesn't get to me.
keep up the good work Grumpy!!!

Anonymous said...

just reread some of Furst's novels and their world stirs with the life of the time and the tenor of the operations Looking forward to the next novel that has to come out. since I was a youngster during WWII I do not notice any of the slips or minor errors that others note. I am just thrilled to be there. definitely a star writer

Anonymous said...

I have read all of Alan Furst's books. Of course, the stories are compelling, exciting and hold your interest. However, I find all the little details and the insights that his characters have about other people to be the kinds of thing that makes me not only read his stuff - but re-read it every year or two.

Anonymous said...

I've been a long-time fan of Furst and so its nice to read such positive comments. If you enjoyed the Paris Quartet (The world at night, Red Gold etc) try Paul Watson's The Forger and Night over Day over Night - both well drawn accounts tense works. In a more conventional 'thriller' vein, Phillip Kerr's Berlin Noir is a superb trilogy set in and around Berlin before, during and after the war

Anonymous said...

I have read all of his pre and early WW2 novels, and have enjoyed them all. True, sometimes his airplane and automobile references are a bit shaky. For example, he has FW 189s bombing Warsaw in 1939; they basically were recon airplanes. Also, he has too many mid level Nazis tooling around in the very low production Grosser Mercedes (770K). It would be the same as frequently referencing a Maybach in today's setting. A better choice would be the mid level models, such as the 230 and 320 Mercedes.

Having said this, he usually is spot on with his car references, and comes with some pretty obscure (but appropriate) Opels, Tatras, and the like. Also, I don't know the cigarette brands for the era, but I will take his word for it! Populating his stories with all of these period products, cultural references, etc only makes the books even more interesting.

rwaters said...

first read dark star twenty years ago.I actually liked Blood of Victory better the second time I read it. While I have a respected friend who will not read Furst because of his aroplane blunders,to wilfully deny one's self the huge pleasures of Furst's writing seems a little perverse.
I can't think of a writer who has given me more pleasure, apart from Patrick O'Brian. Both writers can be re-read with increased pleasure.
If I had to pick a favourite, it would be The Polish Officer, as much for the description of landscape as anything.
Only caveat, all heroes are pretty much the same in outlook, sentiments and capabilities. Or am I being unfair?

Anonymous said...

There is a difference between subtle and tedious.

The Polish Officer put me to sleep, and I don't read bestselling cookie-cutter treacle that's aimed at the fifth-grade level.

You're being quite kind.

andrew49 said...

We are all different! You either like this kind of fiction or you don't. I think Furst is terrific - the best of this genre I've read. Night Soldiers excels,and I agree the quality seems to go down as the books get more recent. The author seems to have got tired and there is less effort on research and detail. That said I'd give Night Soldiers 6 stars and all of the rest four or five. He generates a feeling of authenticity which is unmatched and some of the tension scenes are first rate: parallel horse riders, jumping from Gestapo windows to name but two.

Anonymous said...

I thoroughly enjoyed the books. Looking for trivial errata without feeling the overall sense of the novel seems, well, trivial.

So, trivia, I know, but I think one of the anonymous posters meant 'Watkins' instead of 'Watson'.

Unknown said...

I just discovered Furst and read his recent novel "Foreign Correspondent". I was fascinated through most of the book, but then it ended - suddenly - as though the writer ran out of story or got bored and just quit. It was such a disappointment. I'll try again.

Anonymous said...

If you want to try a writer who writes a bit like Alan Furst, only with touches of Chabon and Marquez, check out GERMANIA, by Brendan McNally.

It deals with the last days of the Third Reich mostly taking place during the 23 day-long "Flensburg Reich" of Hitler's hapless successor, Admiral Doenitz. Albert Speer is there, along with Heinrich Himmler, Schellenberg, John Kenneth Galbraith, and others.

Oh yes, there are also the Jewish identical quadruplets known as the Flying Magical Loerber Brothers

Anonymous said...

I just discovered Alan Furst in my local library and I am blown away by his writing. Have read my way through every book of his in the library and in search of the other titles. His ability to evoke place and character, his sharp take on events, yet gentle humour and sensuality is a breath of fresh air.
Now who else writes like this!

Anonymous said...

I am nursing a broken leg and have been reading all the Furst I can get my hands on. They arre a great distraction