Since 1988, the American writer Alan Furst has written seven books that for want of a more precise term might be called “historical thrillers.” The close of the Cold War, some believe, has put an end to the great spy novel tradition that began with John Buchan and was carried on by Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, Eric Ambler, Ian Fleming, and John le Carré. Le Carré has come to terms with the new world order by changing and expanding his genre, letting his spymaster George Smiley die a not premature death and turning his attention toward the skullduggery of corporations and politicians. Alan Furst, a latecomer to the game, has responded to the chaotic present by ignoring it and fixing his attention firmly, and sharply, on the past—specifically, on continental Europe between 1933 and 1945.

Furst has rightly been called a master of atmospherics. As is often the case with such virtuosi, he is at his best when...


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