Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Gems from the Kailua Bookstore - Part Four

In 1993, I was a senior in college. In December, I took a trip from Syracuse to my uncle’s house in New Rochelle, a suburb just a half hour north of the Big Apple. I was going on a job interview in New York the next morning. I was jumpy….a bundle of nerves and I was running a fever. I was on the verge of something big I couldn’t yet identify: freedom, adulthood, failure. Whether I’d get that job or not...I was on an adventure. I was young…the world was mysterious and wide open.

My uncle picked up on this vibration I was eminating. That night he recommended I’d read A Coffin for Dimitrios. I didn’t read it at the time of his recommendation, but I never forgot how emphatically he praised it. Years later, I'd read Ian Fleming’s From Russia With Love. In that book, Fleming’s Bond carries a copy of Ambler’s Coffin (the UK version of which was titled Mask of Dimitrios). Of course, Bond's copy had some explosive gizmo in it. But this brought back my uncle’s endorsement which I took as a sign that it was time for me to finally meet the master.

I maintain policy never to read any mysteries or espionage novels that take place after 1980. Technology and the worshiping throngs that fuel it have killed the romance of the vintage spy and sacred private investigator.

Of course, real spying and investigating consists of long, meticulous, tedious detailed work. But Ambler’s Coffin enables me to dwell in a fantasy world where cafes and continental parlors are the dance floors of espionage. I’ve since read a number of Ambler’s novels and quite a few of them are a bit forgettable. This however, is a classic (as are Light of Day and Background to Danger).

Alan Furst is a contemporary writer whose work takes place in 1930’s and 40’s Europe. Like Ambler, his novels capture that trepidation in the air that Europe felt just before the full onslaught of WW2 began.

What’s your favorite spy novel?

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