Fiction, Spies

Novel: Kingdom of Shadows by Alan Furst

January 21, 2009

As much as I enjoy the espionage genre in film and television, for some reason I haven’t found that many spy novelists that appeal to me. In my book John LeCarre’ still sets the standard, but if I had to pick a runner-up, it would be Alan Furst. Furst writes atmospheric, realistic espionage novels set in Europe during the thirties and forties — ten of them, so far. For my money none of them have quite lived up to the first two, Night Soldiers (1988) and Dark Star (1990), which are epic in scope, gritty, detailed, and powerful…the ending of Night Soldiers, in particular, still sings in my memory months after reading it. But even so, each subsequent adventure has been well worth reading.

Kingdom of Shadows (2000) is the sixth, and like many of them, features an expatriate protagonist whose particular situation illuminates the plight of one of the many nations impacted by the world-shaking events of the era. In this case, it’s Nicholas Morath, a Hungarian advertising man living in Paris, whose uncle’s diplomatic position leads him to engage in risky assignments all across Europe against the burgeoning power of fascist Germany — taking him from France to Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Romania, and Hungary, among other places.

By now I’m familiar enough with Furst’s work to recognize its requisite component elements. The protagonist is almost always a man in his forties, worldly, brave, usually a romantic and a lady’s man, often caught in the crossfire between fascist and communist intelligence dealings. There’s almost always a great deal of business set in Paris, and always at least one scene that takes place in a notorious restaurant there. The formula is pretty unwavering, which is starting to get a bit disappointing.

On the whole, though, if you’re interested in the subject matter — the politics of the era, the circumstances leading up to and influencing World War II, and in general the way things were back then — there is still plenty to enjoy in this installment. As usual it’s meticulously researched, richly detailed, with many memorable moments of adventure, and possesses — as all the Furst spy novels do — interesting political conversations that hint at the what-ifs of World War II, from various of-the-time perspectives. Also, unique to the novel is the Hungarian angle — Furst does tend to vary the nationality of his characters enough between books that we get to view the conflict through different lenses. It’s a formula, then, but at least a formula that lends itself to some variety. So if you’re a fan of spy fiction or interested in World War II history — or, preferably, both, which is why this author is such a sweet spot for me — Kingdom of Shadows delivers the goods, yet again. For new readers, though, I highly recommend starting with Night Soldiers, and moving on from there if you’re so inclined.

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