During the war years in the Balkans, on those chilly nights when you counted your blessings if you had a portable generator that provided enough light to read by, Alan Furst's spy novels offered pleasant diversion for many a foreign correspondent.
Furst, a New Yorker, was almost unknown in his native land during the 1990s, but his sophisticated stories of espionage attracted a strong cult following in Britain, and he was particularly popular with the crowd of journalists who saw him as a kindred spirit and admired his eye for the illuminating detail.
Furst, who was in Chicago recently, recalled a phone call from fellow writer and former Oberlin College classmate Geoffrey Ward.
"You'll never guess where I'm calling from," said Ward, who was calling from Peshawar, the rough and dusty Pakistani city on the Afghan frontier, famous for its open-air arms bazaar. "I wish I had a camera."
Ward went on to tell Furst that he was standing outside a gun merchant's stall where a well-thumbed copy of Furst's 1991 novel, "Dark Star," was being offered for sale alongside the rows of Kalashnikovs and piles of hand grenades.
By the mid-1990s, Furst was appearing regularly on London best-seller lists but still laboring in obscurity in the U.S.
"My paperbacks had to be imported to the U.S. from the U.K.," he said. "Then all of a sudden, 'Kingdom of Shadows' in 2000—that was the breakthrough in the U.S.," That novel, his sixth, made The New York Times' best-seller list, as have the three that followed it.
These days Furst and his elegant style are well-known enough to be featured in an Absolut Vodka ad. ("The bottle was waiting on a brass tray. Absolut, he saw. It had been iced, the glass opaque with frost . . . ")
In reviews, Furst is often described as the author of "spy thrillers." The label causes him to cringe slightly.
"They are not thrillers; they are not spy novels. They are novels that have spies as characters," he said. "You won't find any violent chase scenes in my books. I don't have scenes where the hero confronts the villain on the edge of a cliff."
Not so much Ian Fleming, much more Graham Greene and Eric Ambler, Furst is the master of subtly etched but deeply flawed character, the perfectly set scene, the wry irony.
"In the dying light of an autumn day in 1937, a certain Herr Edvard Uhl, a secret agent, descended from the first-class railway carriage in the city of Warsaw. Above the city, the sky was at war; the last of the sun struck blood-red embers of massed black cloud, while the clear horizon to the west was the color of blue ice." Thus begins his latest novel, "The Spies of Warsaw," a story set in the twilight years of the interwar period when Adolf Hitler's ambitions were manifestly apparent, but Europe chose to avert its gaze.
The stage is Poland, and Furst captures it down to the smallest detail—the postage stamps: "Very pretty, they were, the two-groszy issue, blue and gold, with a handsomely engraved portrait of Chopin."
He even works to get the smell right: "The two room apartment in a worker's district was scrupulously clean—cleanliness being the Polish antidote to poverty—and smelled of medicine."
At the other end of the social spectrum, Furst takes us to the affluent suburb of Milanowek, "a garden in a pine forest, twenty miles from Warsaw, famous for its resin-scented air—'mahogany air,' the joke went, because it was expensive to live there and breath it."
Furst's Warsaw is populated with a cosmopolitan crowd of diplomats, spies, journalists and businessmen, many characters wearing two hats or more as they hustle to find a safe perch in a Europe beginning to crumble beneath their feet.
Back then the Polish capital's social hierarchy was immensely complex and richly textured. It would never recover from the battering it took during World War II. But Furst, a kind of literary anthropologist, imagines its essence with knowing acuity. There is one particularly telling scene in which three low-level Nazi thugs, enjoying a taste of Warsaw's nightlife ahead of some planned skullduggery, find themselves momentarily intimidated by the city's Jews:
". . . Jews in sharp suits, with slicked down hair, began to appear, well known in the club, greeted heartily. They looked sideways at the three Germans, and one of them whispered with the girl who'd sat on Willi's knees.