Espionage is said to be the world’s second-oldest profession, but the spy thriller as a genre is only as old as the professional intelligence services created by the modern nation-state. Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907) is considered the spy thriller’s foundational work, but spies have long appeared in literature, from the Bible’s Book of Joshua to Alexandre Dumas to Arthur Conan Doyle.
I’m by no means a connoisseur of the genre, yet I’m surprised that it took me as long as it did to discover its American master, Alan Furst. Though Furst has been making his living as a writer of spy fiction since the early 1980s, his is not a household name like that of John Le Carré, Ian Fleming, or Tom Clancy. None of Furst’s books have made it to the big screen, which is regrettable, since he is a first-rate craftsman of highly cinematic narratives. He is also simply a very good writer, whose sophisticated and richly imagined fiction often evokes Conrad, Graham Greene, and Arthur Koestler. Like those earlier writers, Furst has much to say about history and the human condition.
Probably the most relevant comparison here is with Le Carré, who has more or less defined the literary high end of the spy genre since The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963). (A good Le Carré retrospective can be found in the Winter 2016/17 issue of the Claremont Review of Books.) Le Carré did his best work during the Cold War, in the shadow of the Cambridge spy-ring disasters that shook the clubby, mid-century world of British intelligence. But his books are only obliquely about the Cold War. He isn’t interested in the meaning or significance of that conflict; rather, he is obsessed with what he sees as the moral ambiguity of espionage in the service of democracy—an activity that he seems to regard as vaguely pointless. His novels are character-driven and light on historical and political context, focusing instead on betrayal, alienation, and the uncertain motives of his characters—“half-devils versus half-angels,” as one puts it.
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