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Historical novelist lights up dark era with new book

Alan Furst travels through the spy-ridden 'Shadows' of Europe

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'I felt like I knew how to hit the note every time'

The heart of Europe


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NEW YORK (CNN) -- At a time when so-called "millennial malaise" is being harped on in the news, it is perversely reassuring to look back on a time when disaster really was imminent. This was the latter half of the 1930s, when democracy had all but succumbed to radical authoritarianism. Hitler was on one side and Stalin on the other, heads of the largest street gangs the world had ever seen, poised for battle over the prize turf of Europe and points beyond.

This is the period chronicled by Alan Furst, author of five previous historical espionage thrillers, whose latest novel, "Kingdom of Shadows," shows the author in his element.

It wasn't always his element, however. "I had a publishing history of murder mysteries," Furst recalled during an interview in the offices of his publisher, Random House. "I had written some other books which didn't go anywhere, and I didn't particularly like them."

It was during a trip to the former Soviet Union in 1982 that he found his new direction. "Suddenly I had everything in the world to write about," Furst said. "I chose a time in the century which had the greatest moments for novels -- the late '30s and World War II."

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Excerpt: 'Kingdom of Shadows'
 

He immediately began the first novel in this sequence, "Night Soldiers" (1988), the odyssey of a Bulgarian refugee whose first bloody encounter with fascism sends him into the arms of the NKVD, the predecessor to the KGB. He serves in the Spanish Civil War for the secret police, only to be betrayed by his "countrymen" during the height of Stalin's purges.

"Everybody was shocked. I'd never written anything like that before," Furst recalled. "I figured in America that's everybody's right. You get to remake your life periodically and that's what I did."

'I felt like I knew how to hit the note every time'

Over the course of the next decade, Furst churned out four more books in this mold -- large, intricate historical thrillers featuring battling spies. The American made a name for himself among British readers and critics, but never quite seemed to break out in the United States.

That seems ready to change with "Kingdom of Shadows" (Random House), a lean, taut pendulum swing from Paris to Budapest during 1938 and 1939, beginning with the Anschluss and culminating in a mad dash westward on the eve of the Blitzkrieg. Furst changed publishers, moving over to Random House ("A very happy switch," he said with a smile), and "decided to clean up with this book."

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Alan Furst returns to the spy world of previous historical thrillers with "Kingdom of Shadows," the author's fifth book  

"I basically wrote five books with 'Night Soldiers,' called them novellas, and came in with a 600-page manuscript," he recalled. " 'Kingdom of Shadows' was a 330-page manuscript, and it's a much better book, because the reader's better able to focus on one particular period in time. This book, I felt like I knew how to hit the note every single time. It just happened. I think the practice has paid off."

The book's plot concerns Nicholas Morath, an expatriate Magyar aristocrat and hero of the Great War, returning from an errand for his uncle, the diplomat Count Janos Polanyi. Both men are members of the "Shadow Front," a consortium of liberal political interests in Hungary united in resistance to the far-right Arrow.

Polanyi, no fool, sees the writing on the wall: "I think, more and more, that these people, this German aggression, will finish us, sooner or later. The Austrians pulled us into war in 1914 -- perhaps some day somebody will tell me precisely why we had to do all that. And now, it begins again."

Furst paints a mood of familiarity between the two men, a resignation that the lessons of the Great War have not sunk in, that they must act to protect themselves and their country from an inevitable showdown between Hitler and Stalin. Neither scenario, the characters know, is particularly cheery.

Eventually, Morath's missions become more frequent and dangerous, taking him through battle zones between rival political factions, trying to organize a defensive network of contacts and funds to try to save Hungary from the armies of extremists threatening to engulf Europe. It is the war before the war.

The heart of Europe

Furst was drawn to Hungary by its geographical position in the heart of Europe and its ability to have remained unscathed until late in the war. "They did it by talking to Hitler, promising him everything, signing anything he wanted, and then not doing it. They conned him." Furst chalked this national longevity up to a perceived divide between Hitler and Hungary's leader, Admiral Horthy: "He was the single longest-serving statesman in Europe as regent to the king of Hungary. He was a brilliant painter and horseman. He was an aristocrat who married a beautiful aristocratic woman. Hitler was a lower-class thug, a psychopath. I think he looked up to Horthy, and the Hungarians knew it."

"Kingdom of Shadows" mingles several historical plots, not the least important of which derives from an actual conspiracy among several German Army intelligence officers to assassinate Hitler just prior to the outbreak of war. Furst expertly threads Morath through all these stories, binding them together in a manner which offers readers both a good thrill ride and an inspiring message.

Furst's writing has been praised as "atmospheric," and in this book he lives up to the compliment. For every factual newspaper headline, there is a period meal described in mouthwatering detail. Each summation of background political and military maneuverings is counterbalanced by lavish parties and passionate trysts (Furst does intense research into the time period of his subject, seeking what he called "the physics, the tides of the moment"). Languages, currencies, and locales long gone by spring to life again as Morath runs hell-bent all over Europe, pursued by agents of half a dozen intelligence services.

It's an interesting juxtaposition, an agent of hope amid the destruction of the Second World War. Furst admitted that his lead character made this dark period more palatable to him. "Once you have your characters, they tell you what to write, you don't tell them," he said. "Morath was a strong character. He wasn't going to be dominated. Morath has been there, he's seen it all, he's come out the other end. He's been damaged by it -- any veteran will recognize certain traits in him, if I've done this properly. But he's doing the best he can."



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