Tag Archives: spies

Furst’s “Spies like us”

Alan Furst, Midnight in Europe, 2014.

Alan Furst’s latest period spy novel, Midnight in Europe, caught my eye quite by accident while I was at my local library in early October.  I had not remembered that Furst had published a new book in his long-lived World War Two era “series” last June, so when I saw the cover I thought “well, that looks like a Furst,” and sure enough, it was.

As I’ve mentioned before, a colleague introduced me to Furst and I immediately was taken in by the characters, environs, and the era.  As a student and instructor of history, I’ve long been fascinated by compelling and successful novels that help illustrate a period in time.  Alan Furst creates, not unlike John le Carre, vivid worlds of espionage, secrets, failed trust, and lovers.

Midnight in Europe is no exception as we meet Catalan refugee Cristian Ferrar, international attorney and Parisian resident, along with former arms dealer Max de Lyon, and a host of other characters, some new, some familiar.  Furst populates his novels with people and locations who “overlap” one another, so in Midnight we re-visit Brasserie Heininger and spend time with Count Polanyi, a Hungarian diplomat.  It’s rather like re-visiting a comfortable neighborhood, even in cases when Furst is laying the base for some very tense story-telling.

While Midnight did not impress me the same way in which earlier novels like Night Soldiers or The World at Night did it still allows one to envision pre-World War Two Europe in all its romanticism and tension.  Ferrar’s trips into Nazi Germany, his planning for the future as his homeland (Spain) falls to the fascist Francisco Franco (who is these days, is still dead), and the introduction of the United States more fully into the story line are all intriguing.

Part of what Furst has done successfully over the years is give readers insight into the lives of those at the fringes of the “typical” World War Two narrative. So in Midnight we meet a Catalan, Spanish citizens fighting off fascism, a Russian Jew who has lived all over the continent, Greeks, Hungarians, and more.  These individuals are all facing the coming changes in mid 1930s Europe and, in some instances saying their farewells – it can be touching how Furst portrays these tough men (laborers, criminals, dockyard workers, etc.) acknowledging that their homes are about to explode and many may never see one another again.  One could do worse when trying to unravel interwar politics than to pick up books such as Midnight.

postscript – I’ve also been reminded that the BBC produced a version of Furst’s Spies of Warsaw starring David Tennant as the lead.  Seems as though I need to check out Hulu+ and give the series a whirl.


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Filed under Fiction, Teaching and Learning History

There goes a big slide of snow…

Gavin Mortimer, Double Death: The True Story of Pryce Lewis, The Civil War’s Most Daring Spy. New York: Walker and Company, 2010.

Gavin Mortimer has crafted an interesting, though ironically unexciting, tale of Pryce Lewis, the British national who worked for the United States and Allan Pinkerton as a detective and spy during the American Civil War.  The narrative is written clearly moves at a fair pace.  Mortimer describes for readers information on the origins of the Pinkerton agency as well quick, concise background sections on various aspects of the Civil War era (eg, the importance of John Brown, abolitionists’ positions, the nature of Union generalship, etc.)

As with many histories of obscure figures, some of Mortimer’s most fascinating sections deal with how the story of Lewis survived, surfaced, went underground, and resurfaced.  I’m always intrigued by how certain stories make it through to the present day.  As Mortimer says in his acknowledgments, “it’s taken 122 years to get your story into print.”  Partially this is because there was little interest in Lewis’ memoirs during his lifetime and the fact that elements of the spy’s life story resided in the hands of an unsuccessful editor, his daughter, a history graduate student at Columbia, an unknown apartment cleaner, and the History Society of St. Lawrence County, New York.  Historical narratives are often the result of such accidents, though I’ve rarely encountered one quite so odd in its path to publisher’s house.

When Pryce Lewis leapt to his death from New York’s World Building in 1911 (mistaken for snow sliding to the ground), he was described in the papers as a ‘famous war spy.’  Mortimer insists that his subject, Lewis, was the most ‘daring’ of these largely civilian spies that dominated the intelligence gathering through the first couple years of the war.  I don’t know that I’m convinced as to Lewis’ daring.  It seems that if the majority of your time during the war is spent having been caught and therefore in a cell, there isn’t much time left to be daring?  Granted, some of Lewis’ decisions and ‘tall tales’ as he was seeking information in western Virginia in 1861 were on the bold side, but these actions also seem like necessities given his career choice at the time.

There are several strong points to Mortimer’s work besides the writing itself, though there are some issues in which I wish he had either delved in more deeply or taken more care.  Mortimer is effective at presenting Lewis and the other spies and their actions in the greater context of both the war and the international political drama of the time period.  This fact is particularly true given Lewis’ nationality as an Englishman (technically Welsh) and in details about various officers and generals involved in giving and receiving information (the grandfather of George Patton and George McClellan for example).  McClellan though is portrayed in a bit too standard a fashion of the hesitant commander – there was, arguably, a bit more nuance to him.

Finally, and this is often the case in popularly written non fiction books, there is the issue of the research and citations.  While much of the text is pulled from the documents rescued by the historical society in St. Lawrence county, there are bits of other information pulled from both primary and secondary sources.  While there are footnotes of a sort at the back of the text, a reader is left examining pages to see where the information might fit in, assuming that various quotes will be cited (they are by the way).  More to the point, when analyzing issues of Great Britain’s relationship to the Confederate States, Mortimer is relying on books that are upwards of 90 years old and there have been more recent studies on this question.

I was given the book about three years ago as a gift by a college roommate and I’m glad I finally got around to reading it.  As interesting in some ways that Pryce Lewis and his experiences are, I wish that Mortimer had found a slightly more ‘daring’ figure to explore.


Filed under Teaching and Learning History