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by Alan Furst
Random House, October 2001
272 pages
ISBN: 0375758267

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Journalist Alan Furst has not yet achieved the dubious state of bliss of becoming a full time author. He has used his profession to deliver him to various locations in which he has set his novels. This American writer delights in his impeccable research and impeccable indeed it is. His knowledge of 'his' period, that between 1933 and 1944, is impressive. Admittedly, there are still people living on whom he can call for information. There are also archives of newspapers and film to which he can gain access. Nonetheless, his feel for the period is such that he can generate in his readers the sense of just how the pre-war period felt, just what the people who lived then experienced and believed.

Furst's output so far has not been great. Before embarking on his historical so-called 'spy' novels, he dabbled in the mystery genre but dropped that form in favour of the one he now practises. The more recent, and acclaimed, books include The Polish Officer, Night Soldiers, Dark Star, The World At Night , Red Gold and now issued in paperback, Kingdom of Shadows.

Kingdom of Shadows is set in the Paris of 1938. The whole world feels that war is inevitable but British PM, Chamberlain, toadies to Hitler and seeks his inglorious Peace With Honour. Hungarian Nicholas Morath has been given an advertising agency by his uncle, Count Janos Polanyi. Such an agency provides a good cover for the activities of Morath as he sets about obeying the orders of his uncle, who is striving to aid those who wish to keep Hungary out of an alliance with Hitler. Polanyi is a ruthless, dark and machiavellian figure who uses Morath as a puppet. The hapless Nicholas is sent to different countries on errands which he cannot understand and often of which he strongly disapproves. He is a reluctant accessory to murder yet must unquestioningly obey his uncle.

Furst has been compared, favourably, to the great espionage writers such as Graham Greene and Eric Ambler. His writing is spare - no words are wasted, yet his prose is deeply evocative of the mood of the time and the settings of the action. The atmosphere of uncertainty is maintained to the end of the book since a great many threads are left unresolved. While his readers are as baffled as Morath as to Polanyi's ultimate goals they do know, in the light of history, how fruitless are Morath's attempts to plug the dam with his actions and prevent the flood of warfare.

One could by no means describe this book as character driven. I felt that Morath would, in the hands of other authors, have been developed to a greater extent, yet doubt other authors could have produced such an elegant novel. Furst's female characters barely leave an impression on the narrative save as a backdrop to the main protagonists. This having been said, Furst's novel is an impressive read albeit one not to be undertaken lightly.

Editoržs Note: This review was based on the Australian Edition.

Reviewed by Denise Wels, March 2002

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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