ONLINE ONLY: Furst Principles
Mercier is a wounded and decorated veteran, as are many of Furst’s characters, so there is little suspense about how these people will react to the discovery of what war, or its equivalent, is really like. While the early novels are wonderful on what Le Carre taught his readers to call tradecraft, that alone cannot account for the pleasure Furst provides—his readers have probably already read Le Carre, and have in most cases already read Furst.
So why do the books continue to delight so many readers? Until the current volume, where the protagonist is a serving officer of a still-sovereign state, one reason the books are so satisfying is because their heroes are people who have made a peculiarly impressive choice. They face dreadful danger only because they have deliberately chosen to involve themselves in resistance movements, and they have done so when the odds against an Allied victory seemed less than encouraging. The risks—torture and, at the end, a very bad death at the hands of the Gestapo—are horrific, but the stakes are as high as stakes can get: the prospect of a Nazi victory.
Furst seems to know that with the great exceptions of code-breaking and strategic deception, most Allied intelligence operations changed relatively little about the war’s course and outcome. Nevertheless, risking all to make a ghastly outcome even a little less probable remains an urgent choice: the novels assume, with neither argument nor pontification, that nothing has ever mattered more.
Other historical espionage novelists, some of them often compared to Furst—for example, Joseph Kanon—specialize in blurring the moral standing of the war’s eventual victors. But Furst doesn’t seem interested in blurring the moral standing of the Allied victors, with the crucial exception of Stalin’s Soviet Union. Moreover, even in the case of Stalin’s Soviet Union, Furst appears to share the verdict memorably expressed by the great military historian Omar Bartov, when reviewing a book famed for the breadth of its sympathies for all who fought at Stalingrad: One army had invaded the country of the other, seeking to murder many and enslave the remainder of its citizens; therefore any great sympathy for Hitler’s army risks perversity.