Novels of Night and Shadow

Even the most robust readers in the world take the time to do some reading that is more recreational in nature. While I do not count myself within the realm of the world’s most robust readers, I do frequently engage in recreational reading.

In the past year or so, I’ve found myself drawn to the novels of Alan Furst, whose novels fall not-so-neatly into the genre of the spy thriller. Set in the period preceding and during the Second World War, Furst’s novels follow the exploits of ordinary Europeans who find themselves in circumstances which put upon them the extraordinary.

Furst’s characters are everymen from nowhere. They are from oft-forgotten places and hold unlikely jobs. For Americans who know little of the eastern front of WWII, the novels can also serve as a good historical primer for the happenings of pre-war Europe.

I’ve always been a sucker for great beginnings, and Furst doesn’t disappoint in setting the stage. Take this opening line from the premiere novel in his series, Night Soldiers:

In Bulgaria, in 1934, on a muddy street in the river town of Vidin, Khristo Stoianev saw his brother kicked to death by fascist militia.

It draws you in, doesn’t it? Furst’s slavish attention to detail draws the reader into a setting where uncertainty is unavoidable, yet his plots seem to work themselves out. His protagonists walk tightropes that could land them in the vicious hands of the ruthless Nazi Gestapo — or possibly worse, the Soviet NKVD. His characters are never islands, and realize that in a deadly world, heroic individualism always ends up in failure. And failure, more often than not, means death.

The volumes I have read so far include:

For recreational reading with just enough heft so you won’t feel guilty, you might want to give them a look. You’ll also be in good company. I came across one noteworthy Amazon reviewer who loves all of Furst’s books: former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who has a great review of Night Soldiers.