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THE BOOK OF SPIES by Alan Furst

THE BOOK OF SPIES

An Anthology of Literary Espionage

By Alan Furst

Pub Date: May 20th, 2003
ISBN: 0-679-64251-X
Publisher: Modern Library

A master of the form culls from the cream of the cloak-and-dagger crop.

Having possibly already supplanted le Carré as the most popular writer of the spy genre, Furst (Blood of Victory, 2002, etc.) is as good a choice as any to headline this anthology. In an introduction, Furst lets us know he’s not after any old Bond knock-offs here, but wants good writing (“we are here in the literary end of the spectrum”) and “the pursuit of authenticity.” To that end, he made some excellent choices (fortunately taking sections out of novels as opposed to using only shorter pieces) that more than fulfill the rules he set for himself, where the characters “work at the sharp edge of the Manichean universe.” Things start off promisingly, with Eric Ambler’s 1939 “A Coffin for Dimitrious,” about a mystery novelist who pursues the ghost of arch-criminal/political operative Dimitrious across Turkey and the Balkans. Ambler’s voice is martini-dry and brilliantly focused on the details, but the real genius is the fleeting face of Dimitrious himself, who could well have been the inspiration for Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects. Le Carré, of course, shows up here, but unfortunately, it’s a good-enough but unspectacular bit from “The Russia House” (George Smiley is the great, notable absence in this volume). A gem mostly forgotten is W. Somerset Maugham’s semiautobiographical “Ashenden,” whose titular British WWII spy is fey and given to extravagance: Oscar Wilde on a mission and saddled with a conscience. A memorable episode from Graham Greene’s The Quiet American is another surprising but excellent choice (a lesser editor would have assumed that Our Man in Havana was the one to go with), while Steinbeck’s The Moon Is Down, Anthony Burgess’ Tremor of Intent, and Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel round things out quite nicely.

Twelve expertly chosen tales of secret operatives: shadowy and elusive, cunningly written and thrillingly fraught with peril.