5 November, East End of Long Island. The Transom is poised to commence its surveillance of the seldom-seen Alan Furst, master of the historical espionage thriller and longtime resident of Sag Harbor. Thanks to the efforts of a cunning librarian, Mr. Furst has agreed to give a talk this evening at the John Jermain Library on Main St., his first speaking engagement in years.
“He’ll probably walk to the library. Wait for him outside his house,” our contact, a former operative, counseled, “then cross the road, run through the schoolyard and down Atlantic Avenue, and lay for him. Don’t follow right behind—about 40 paces is the rule. If he should turn around, cover your face with a newspaper. Try not to get arrested for vagrancy.”
18:00h, 71 —- Street. A late autumn crepuscule. In the street, shadows. Through the balding privet hedge, the author’s white farmhouse betrays no sign of life.
Suddenly a light in an upstairs room flickers on-off, on-off at two-second intervals. Is this code? A door slams. The crackle of leaves: a Furst-like figure limps to the gravel drive. He fails to notice the secret agent hiding behind a great big oak, pretending to read an ancient copy of the Financial Times. Presently he climbs into his silver Audi, backs out, turns down a side street and is gone.
Mr. Furst materializes again on the second floor of the library. To our dismay, his delightful anecdotes reveal no spycraft, but he invites the Transom to call on him the following afternoon (“Let me tell you where I live…”). Unfortunately, by the time we get there, he is dead, a dagger protruding from his chest—no, wait! Wrong story!
6 November, 15h. Tristesse in the air. Receiving us in a scarily tidy office furnished with portraits of dead Russians, Mr. Furst explained that he’d spent a fitful morning wrestling with Spies of the Balkans, the 11th novel in his Night Soldiers series, which is due out from Random House in June. Much of the action takes place in Salonika in 1940; the characters include a senior police official and distinguished lover; a Jewish woman running an escape line out of Berlin; and a mountain sheep dog that may or may not be scheduled for termination. Isn’t it difficult to slip into the skins of 1940s-era Greeks? Mr. Furst raised his beetled brows. “Not if you’re a mind-worm like me.”
Told of the Transom’s attempt to practice spycraft, he understood at once. “You thought I was going to walk to the library. You were planning to stay 40 paces back?”
He knows about the 40 paces?
“Of course! I know all the tradecraft! Every bit!”
Mr. Furst, who owes his authority to fastidious research rather than direct experience, then offered a tip, drawn from the pages of the new book. When moving in a covert manner, one should always take along a “tracker” to check and make sure one is not being followed.
After a moment, he added, “You can practice on me any time. I’m not sensitive to surveillance.”
Afraid he meant “done properly,” we slunk out undetected.