The Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst

Random House 2008  266 pp.

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


By April 1938, the Anschluss was complete: in a plebiscite, Austrian voters had decided by a landslide to create the Austro-German union.  In Spain, Vinaroz had been overrun by Franco’s army, effectively isolating Castile.  Despite these ominous events, in Warsaw the eternal round of diplomatic parties continued: pleasantries exchanged between sips of champagne among the French, Russians, Germans, and Poles, in language that concealed plans, hopes, and fears for the future of Europe.

To the Poles, of course, anxiety about their fate was nothing new.  For over one hundred years prior to the end of World War I during the time of “the Partition,” their beloved land had been a political football. Yet, “with the rebirth of Poland in 1918, the new borders left a million Germans in Poland and two million Poles in Germany, which guaranteed that the bad blood would stay bad.”  The borders had been drawn and re-drawn so many times that “a man would rise from his bed in Poland, then go into his kitchen for breakfast in Germany.”

Enter Colonel Jean-Franćois Mercier de Boutillon, forty-six, minor aristocrat, widower, former colleague of Charles de Gaulle, and, by 1937, French “military attaché” in Warsaw.  In other words, a spy.

French-friendly Poland was an ideal post: here information could be gathered and exchanged among future combatants without the bother of law-breaking, as everyone was on neutral ground.  Mercier’s days are taken up with routine information gathering, his nights with the glittering boredom of cocktail receptions.  Two things motivate Mercier: the equally exciting promises of new love and new information that might reveal the Nazi’s plans for France.

Widowed for three years, Mercier has no intentions of dallying with anyone other than the occasional prostitute until he spies, as it were, the lawyer Anna Szarbek, beautiful, blonde, and not quite single, living with a Russian journalist.  While plotting to pry her from the Russian’s grip, he has other plans afoot with the Black Front, an underground group of nationalist Germans opposed to Hitler.  Pistol shots ringing out in the night on cobbled city streets, a desperate woman banging on his door in the bone-chilling darkness, an angry German officer ambushing him with a riding crop and two large friends, Mercier’s life rockets from intense boredom to life-threatening attacks at the turn of a street corner.

Most of us are suckers for the story of the ordinary person caught up in extraordinary circumstances, in which he/she discovers reserves of competence and commitment to solve the problem.  Artists like the idea too—look at middle Elmore Leonard, to say nothing of Hitchcock.  The most compelling element of this scenario involves removing some grand moral imperative and replacing it with something smaller and more human.  The character acts not to save the nation, someone’s virtue, or an endangered child, but just because . . . that’s what one does.  This leaves us with an intriguing speculative lacuna: why risk your life for That?

Alan Furst’s books fall into this category.  Sure, it’s World War II and the fate of the West hangs in the balance, but his characters (despite their sophisticated backgrounds) are more concerned with getting into the railway office after midnight, or not running the boat they’re piloting onto the reef, or getting the documents from here to there.  His characters are so compelling because they respond to events as you or I might; yet the consequences of their acts reveal them to be heroes of the highest order.

Comparisons have dogged Furst’s publishing career: is he the next Eric Ambler or John le Carré?  With The Spies of Warsaw, his tenth novel, we can hopefully ignore the comparisons and state that Furst has reinvented the spy thriller and made it his own.  Like Graham Greene’s Greenland, Furst has brought us in these novels an exotic world of sex and intrigue that is instantly recognizable as Furstland.  The Spies of Warsaw adds another layer to the world he has created, and this engaging historical fiction should be read by anyone who loves a compelling story well told.