Book: Kingdom of Shadows

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Kingdom of Shadows

Author: Alan Furst
Publisher: Random House

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 recuited 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 cafes of Juan-les-Pins and the forests of Ruthenia, from Czech fortresses in the Sudetenland to the private gardens of the declasse royalty in Budapest. The web Polyani 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 Carre, but Kingdom of Shadows is distinctive and entirely original. It is Furst at his very best.


Penzler Pick, January 2001: The thrillers of Alan Furst usually take place in the dark days preceding World War II, but while the main participants in that war are of course portrayed, Britain, France, Germany, and the United States do not usually star in Furst’s novels. He prefers instead to focus his stories on the citizens of those countries whose allegiances and roles in that particular theater of operations are much more contradictory and conflicted.

Kingdom of Shadows is set in Paris during 1938 and 1939. It is unclear at that time what the fate of Hungary will be if Hitler has his way, but a small group of expatriates would like to insure that events turn out in their country’s favor. Nicholas Morath is an Hungarian aristocrat who fought bravely in the Great War. He is now part owner of an advertising agency in Paris, while his uncle, Count Janos Polanyi, is a minor diplomat stationed in Paris. Polanyi calls on Nicholas to take part in missions against the Hungarian Fascists: carrying letters or bringing individuals back across the border in the course of his business trips.

As Nicholas’s dinner parties, business deals, and dalliances with his mistress start to take a back seat to the escalating crisis in Europe, his tasks become more complicated, dangerous, and bewildering to him. He knows far less than the reader, who understands that his actions will have far-reaching consequences even beyond the fate of Hungary. Nicholas just does what he can without the luxury of historic hindsight.

Furst has fashioned here an elegant gem that vividly portrays the city of Paris during the last peaceful days of 1938 and the menace of Hitler’s ambitions in the Sudetenland and beyond. Nicholas Morath is a charismatic and sympathetic figure who will come to understand, as the war progresses, the consequences, both good and bad, of his smallest actions during that turbulent time. —Otto Penzler

Barnes and Noble

Kingdom of Shadows is the sixth, stand-alone volume in Alan Furst’s ongoing portrait of “the world at night”: the cataclysmic 12-year period of Adolf Hitler’s ascendancy. Following closely on the heels of 1999’s Red Gold, an authoritative account of life in the French Resistance, Furst’s latest is a compelling story of a world on the brink of war and a meticulously detailed re-creation of a vanished era.

Kingdom of Shadows begins in March of 1938 and ends during the summer of 1939, a period of uneasy “peace” in which national boundaries shift overnight, political alliances are forged and broken, anti-Semitic sentiments proliferate, and the armies of Europe mobilize for war. Significant events from this period—all of them part of the fabric of this book—include Hitler’s annexation of Austria, the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, and the nonaggression pact between Stalin and Hitler, a pact that paves the way for the invasion of Poland and the formal beginning of the war.

Furst shows us these events from the partisan perspective of his deeply sympathetic hero, Nicholas Morath, a Hungarian aristocrat living in exile in Paris. Morath, on the surface, is an unlikely sort of hero. Part owner of a successful advertising agency, he cultivates the appearance of a bon vivant and ladies’ man born to a life of privilege. Beneath that surface, he is a committed anti-Fascist, a decorated war hero, and a true descendant of his Magyar ancestors. Following the directives of his wealthy, enigmatic uncle, Count Janos Polanyi, Morath travels from his home in Paris to the trouble spots of Europe, gathering information, collecting money from anti-Nazi sympathizers, doing “favors” for influential friends, and putting himself repeatedly in harm’s way.

Morath’s adventures form the substance of this plotless, peripatetic novel, and they take him from the mountain fortresses of Czechoslovakia to a Romanian prison, from the aristocratic enclaves of Budapest to the decadent environs of Nazi-dominated Vienna. Together, they illuminate the changing face of a world sliding rapidly into chaos and night. They also illuminate the essential nature of Morath himself, a complex, romantic, thoroughly admirable figure who has dedicated his life to the destruction of National Socialism.

Furst has been compared to a great many writers—Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, John le Carré—but none of these comparisons seem particularly apt. Furst is very much his own man, and his six-volume cycle of war novels represents a unique achievement. At their best, as in Kingdom of Shadows, these books literally bring the past to life, resurrecting the sights, sounds, and tensions of a bygone world with passion, artistry, and scrupulous historical accuracy.

Bill Sheehan

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