Paris, 1938. As Europe edges toward war, Nicholas Morath, an urbane former cavalry officer, spends his days working at the small advertising agency he owns and his nights in the bohemian circles of his Argentine mistress. But Morath has been recruited by his uncle, Count Janos Polanyi, a diplomat in the Hungarian legation, for operations against Hitler’s Germany. It is Morath who does Polanyi’s clandestine work, moving between the beach cafés of Juan-les-Pins and the forests of Ruthenia, from Czech fortresses in the Sudetenland to the private gardens of the déclassé royalty in Budapest. The web Polanyi spins for Morath is deep and complex and pits him against German intelligence officers, NKVD renegades, and Croat assassins in a shadow war of treachery and uncertain loyalties, a war that Hungary cannot afford to lose. Alan Furst is frequently compared with Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, and John le Carré, but Kingdom of Shadows is distinctive and entirely original. It is Furst at his very best.
Praise for Kingdom of Shadows
“Kingdom of Shadows offers a realm of glamour and peril that are seamlessly intertwined and seem to arise effortlessly from the author’s consciousness.”—Janet Maslin, The New York Times
“Subtly spun, sensitive to nuances, generous with contemporary detail and information discreetly conveyed. . . . It’s hard to overestimate Kingdom of Shadows.”—Eugen Weber, Los Angeles Times
“A triumph: evocative, heartfelt, knowing and witty.”—Robert J. Hughes, The Wall Street Journal
“Imagine discovering an unscreened espionage thriller from the late 1930s, a classic black- and- white movie that captures the murky allegiances and moral ambiguity of Europe on the brink of war. . . . Nothing can be like watching Casablanca for the first time, but Furst comes closer than anyone has in years.”—Walter Shapiro, Time
About the Author
Hometown:Sag Harbor, New York
Place of Birth:New York, New York
Education:B.A., Oberlin College
Read an Excerpt
On the tenth of March 1938, the night train from Budapest pulled into the Gare du Nord a little after four in the morning. There were storms in the Ruhr Valley and down through Picardy and the sides of the wagon-lits glistened with rain. In the station at Vienna, a brick had been thrown at the window of a first-class compartment, leaving a frosted star in the glass. And later that day there'd been difficulties at the frontiers for some of the passengers, so in the end the train was late getting into Paris.
Nicholas Morath, traveling on a Hungarian diplomatic passport, hurried down the platform and headed for the taxi rank outside the station. The first driver in line watched him for a moment, then briskly folded his Paris-Midi and sat up straight behind the wheel. Morath tossed his bag on the floor in the back and climbed in after it. "L'avenue Bourdonnais," he said. "Number eight."
Foreign, the driver thought. Aristocrat. He started his cab and sped along the quai toward the Seventh Arrondissement. Morath cranked the window down and let the sharp city air blow in his face.
8, avenue de la Bourdonnais. A cold, haut bourgeois fortress of biscuit-colored stone block, flanked by the legations of small countries. Clearly, the people who lived there were people who could live anywhere, which was why they lived there. Morath opened the gate with a big key, walked across the courtyard, used a second key for the building entry. "Bonsoir, Séléne," he said. The black Belgian shepherd belonged to the concierge and guarded the door at night. A shadow in the darkness, she came to his hand for a pat, then sighed as she stretched back out on the tile. Séléne, he thought, goddess of the moon.
Cara's apartment was the top floor. He let himself in. His footsteps echoed on the parquet in the long hallway. The bedroom door was open, by the glow of a streetlamp he could see a bottle of champagne and two glasses on the dressing table, a candle on the rosewood chest had burned down to a puddle of golden wax.
"What time is it?"
"Your wire said midnight." She sat up, kicked free of the quilts. She had fallen asleep in her lovemaking costume, what she called her "petite chemisette," silky and black and very short, a dainty filigree of lace on top. She leaned forward and pulled it over her head, there was a red line across her breast where she'd slept on the seam.
She shook her hair back and smiled at him. "Well?" When he didn't respond she said, "We are going to have champagne, aren’t we?"
Oh no. But he didn't say it. She was twenty-six, he was forty-four. He retrieved the champagne from the dressing table, held the cork, and twisted the bottle slowly until the air hissed out. He filled a glass, gave it to her, poured one for himself.
"To you and me, Nicky," she said.
It was awful, thin and sweet, as he knew it would be, the caviste in the rue Saint-Dominique cheated her horribly. He set his glass on the carpet, went to the closet, began to undress.
"Was it very bad?"
Morath shrugged. He'd traveled to a family estate in Slovakia where his uncle's coachman lay dying. After two days, he died. "Austria was a nightmare," he said.
"Yes, it's on the radio."
He hung his suit on a hanger, bundled up his shirt and underwear and put it in the hamper.
"Nazis in the streets of Vienna," he said. "Truckloads of them, screaming and waving flags, beating up Jews."
"Worse." He took a fresh towel off a shelf in the closet.
"They were always so nice."
He headed for the bathroom.
"Come sit with me a minute, then you can bathe."
He sat on the edge of the bed. Cara turned on her side, pulled her knees up to her chin, took a deep breath and let it out very slowly, pleased to have him home at last, waiting patiently for what she was showing him to take effect.
Oh well. Caridad Valentina Maria Westendorf (the grandmother) de Parra (the mother) y Dionello. All five feet, two inches of her. From one of the wealthiest families in Buenos Aires. On the wall above the bed, a charcoal nude of her, drawn by Pablo Picasso in 1934 at an atelier in the Montmartre, in a shimmering frame, eight inches of gold leaf Outside, the streetlamp had gone out. Through a sheer curtain, he could see the ecstatic gray light of a rainy Parisian morning.
Morath lay back in the cooling water of the bathtub, smoking a Chesterfield and tapping it, from time to time, into a mother-of-pearl soap dish. Cara my love. Small, perfect, wicked, slippery. "A long, long night," she'd told him. Dozing, sometimes waking suddenly at the sound of a car. "Like blue movies, Nicky, my fantasies, good and bad, but it was you in every one of them. I thought, he isn't coming, I will pleasure myself and fall dead asleep." But she didn't, said she didn't. Bad fantasies? About him? He'd asked her but she only laughed. Slavemaster? Was that it? Or naughty old Uncle Gaston, leering away in his curious chair? Perhaps something from de Sade—and now you will be taken to the abbot's private chambers.
Or, conversely, what? The "good" fantasies were even harder to imagine. The Melancholy King? Until tonight, I had no reason to live. Errol Flynn? Cary Grant? The Hungarian Hussar?
He laughed at that, because he had been one, but it was no operetta. A lieutenant of cavalry in the Austro-Hungarian army, he'd fought Brusilov's cossacks in the marshes of Polesia, in 1916 on the eastern front. Outside Lutsk, outside Kovel and Tarnopol. He could still smell the burning barns.
Reading Group Guide
1. How does Nicholas Morath's experience as a cavalry officer in World War I affect his behavior in this book?
2. During many of Morath's assignments, he acts with very limited knowledge--he knows what he is to do, but not why, or who is involved. His uncle, a diplomat at the Hungarian legation, does not tell him the full story. Why? Is his uncle morally right to do this? Is he right in any sense? How is this used as a plot device?
3. The first verse of the Hungarian national anthem, quotes in the epigraph of Kingdom of Shadows, speaks of a people "torn by misfortune," a nation that has "already paid for its sins." How is the tone of this national anthem different from that of other patriotic songs? What can you infer about the history of Hungary from its national anthem?
4. Critics praise Furst's ability to re-create the atmosphere of World War II-era Europe with great accuracy. What elements of description make the setting come alive? How can you account for the fact that the settings seem authentic even though you probably have no first-hand knowledge of the times and places he writes about?
5. Furst's novels have been described as "historical novels" and as "spy novels". He call them "historical spy novels." Some critics have insisted they are, simply, novels. How does his work compare with other spy novels you've read? What does he do that is the same? Different? If you owned a bookstore, in what section would you display his books?
6. Furst is often praised for his minor characters, which have been described as "sketched out in a few strokes." Do you have a favorite in this book? Characters in Furst's books often take part in the action for a few pages and then disappear. What do you think becomes of them? And, if you know, how do you know? What in the book is guiding you toward that opinion?
7. At the end of an Alan Furst novel, the hero is always still alive. What becomes of Furst's heroes? Will they survive the war? Does Furst know what becomes of them? Would it be better if they were somewhere safe and sound, to live out the end of the war in comfort? If not, why not?
8. Love affairs are always prominent in Furst's novels, and "love in a time of war" is a recurring theme. Do you think these affairs might last, and lead to marriage and domesticity?
9. How do the notions of good and evil work in Kingdom of Shadows? Would you prefer a confrontation between villian and hero at the end of the book? Do you like Furst's use of realism in the novel?