Saturday, February 4, 2012

Alan Furst

Whatever else you think Alan Furst is good at, to my mind he is a master of the lower-upper-middle-class English staccato voice of the 1930s—the one the mid level Secret Service had in the 1940s. He does, of course, write this voice, not speak it, something to my mind that is difficult to do well because it is riddled with special inflection, threatening and unexpected emphasis, and the use of words that are not quite what the dictionary gives you.

In Spies of the Balkans two Secret Service agents, Jones and Wilkins are briefing Francis Escovil, a junior street operative. Jones explains that they have to clean up a mess caused by a superior and are giving the job to Escovil. Here I quote from the book:

"Somebody with a name?"  Escovil said.

"Oh, we can't tell you that." He stared at Escovil. "Are you mad?"

"I see," Escovil said, faintly amused, which was not at all the proper response.

"Do you." Wilkins said.

Only in England, Escovil thought, could "Do you" be spoken in such a way that it meant "So now I shall cut your throat."   

Yet, Alan Furst is not English, but an Upper West Side American Jew, now Sag Harbor resident. Besides the exciting plots in his books, it is his gift of a perfect ear for different English accents that made me smile.

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