Illumination and Shadow

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‘It is Europe that is dying, my friends.’ This gloomy observation is, his devoted fans will recognize, the very essence of Alan Furst. It is delivered, in this case, by an anti-fascist Italian exile to a group of his compatriots in Paris in 1938, in Furst’s most recent novel, The Foreign Correspondent. But the world he has brought to life in all nine of his books is old Europe – from Lisbon to the Black Sea, though usually centred in the French capital – as it is smashed and swept away by war and the unstoppable momentum of power politics.

In this remarkable collection of thrillers, which have appeared over the past nineteen years, each one intensifying the reviewer’s hunt for a word that is more intense, more sensuously persuasive than the mere ‘atmospheric’, Furst opens window after window on that tumultuous time, letting in equal amounts of illumination and shadow. (There’s a clue in the titles: Dark Star, Night Soldiers, The World at Night, Kingdom of Shadows, Dark Voyage . . .) And for anyone who thinks they have ‘done’ the Second World War through history lessons, history books or the History Channel, Furst is a revelation, not only because his novels involve the far-flung ‘ragged edges of Europe’ – the Carpathians, the wilder reaches of the Danube . . . maps are sometimes helpfully provided – but because of the moral ambiguities at play among the characters, who get caught up in the intrigues that shape, or attempt to shape, events.

Furst, an American, was for many years a journalist – based in Paris – and his historical research is impeccable; not just the political detail, but what his characters eat, drink, smoke, wear; the life of the streets they walk down, the seedy hotels, grand salons and louche cafés they frequent; night-time in a busy port, border crossings by train. Getting the details right would make Furst just a good social historian – whereas he is a romancer, a romancier one might say.

The reader still manages to learn an awful lot about the realpolitik of the times. In The Foreign Correspondent, the action opens with the murder of an

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About the contributor

Karen Robinson is supplements editor of the Sunday Times, where she has also been the paper’s audio books reviewer for more than a decade.

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