My Favourite Bookshelf


I love books and my wife, the daughter of a librarian, loves books. The legacy technology kind: paper, ink, binding, dust jackets. When we made the decision to join households, books were what we both brought (in spades) to our little 500-square-foot corner of Manhattan. We have more bookcases than any other kind of furniture. And still we never have enough shelf space.

Given our finite shelving, we have a rule: one book in, one book out. I sometimes comply, but other times books find their way to quiet corners of my wardrobe. Which of your books are you prepared to give up in order to get another one? Often, my answer is none.

I have a shelf where the books are protected. Other books may get sacrificed or moved to safety in the wardrobe, but never these books. The protected works are those of Eric Ambler and Alan Furst. The discovery of these two authors was accidental, but linked.

I found Furst’s Blood of Victory when looking for a good thriller. The initial attraction was that the book dealt with the Balkans in 1940 to 41, in the period leading up to Hitler’s invasion of Yugoslavia. Regular visitors to the blog will know that I have spent considerable time in the region and I lapped it up—the descriptions of the people and places rang so true. At the end of Blood of Victory, Furst includes a list of further suggested reading. Here I found the reference to Eric Ambler’s A Coffin for Dimitrios (made into a popular film starring Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet in 1944), and I was hooked.

Writing at least forty years apart, Ambler and Furst share a love of crafting thrillers that are people-focused and imbued with suspense and love of detail. These are not the larger-than-life spy novels of Robert Ludlum or Tom Clancy. There are no satellites, no exotic locations, or high-tech gizmos. Featuring ordinary people involved with intelligence work—or caught up in it—coping in the extraordinary times of the 1930s and ’40s, Ambler and Furst capture the tense European atmosphere so vividly you feel a part of it.

For Ambler, capturing the mood is scarcely a challenge as he was a contemporary. However, his gritty realistic style was praised for lifting the thriller genre and paving the way for the likes of Le Carré, Len Deighton and Alan Furst. For Furst, writing today, it is more difficult, but with deep research he manages it; in The Spies of Warsaw, set at the outset of Second World War, the reader feels the sense of impending doom descending upon the city, enhanced by the knowledge that there is no escape from the inevitable outbreak of war.

These books are my “go-to” books which I read and re-read. They provide transportation to a lost time and place rich in detail and ambience. If this has tempted you to lose yourself in the suspenseful intrigue of Europe during World War II, here are my top 5:

1. Eric Ambler, A Coffin for Dimitrios, 1939. An author follows the trail of a supposedly dead man from Istanbul through Europe.

2. Eric Ambler, Cause for Alarm, 1938. In pre-WWII Italy, an unemployed engineer is caught up in a battle for the secrets of weapons purchases.

3. Alan Furst, Blood of Victory, 2002. A journalist is recruited to stop German importation of Romanian oil up the Daunbe river.

4. Alan Furst, Night Soldiers, 1988. Follows the story of a Bulgarian spy through the Spanish Civil War and into WWII.

5. Alan Furst, The World at Night, 1996.  A French film director grapples with life under the German occupation of Paris.