Vox Tablet

Men of Mystery

One the eve of the release of his 11th book, spy novelist Alan Furst reflects on his sources of inspiration and his cerebral and wordly—if not always Jewish—protagonists

June 14, 2010
(Library of Congress via flickr)

(Library of Congress via flickr)

Alan Furst’s bestselling spy novels depict the secret allegiances and betrayals that animated interwar and wartime Europe, but what distinguishes his work from others who’ve toiled in the genre is the attention he pays to the flavor of everyday life. Amid the forged documents and concealed identities, he still manages to conjure things like the meal a well-to-do couple traveling through the Belgian countryside might have eaten in1941: radishes, salted beef tongue, “some kind of white, waxy cheese,” dried winter apples, and a loaf of bread.

In Furst’s latest, Spies of the Balkans, he introduces us to Constantine “Costa” Zannis, a high-level Salonika detective who, somewhat inadvertently, becomes one link in a chain of operatives shepherding Jews out of Germany. Vox Tablet’s Sara Ivry speaks to Furst, in his home in Sag Harbor, Long Island, about how, in 1986, a Django Reinhardt cassette led him to the time and place he’s written about ever since; about his upbringing on Manhattan’s Upper West Side; and about his attraction to unattached, intellectual heroes.

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