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The Spies of Warsaw: A Novelby Alan Furst
Synopses & Reviews
An autumn evening in 1937. A German engineer arrives at the Warsaw railway station. Tonight, he will be with his Polish mistress; tomorrow, at a workers' bar in the city's factory district, he will meet with the military attaché from the French embassy. Information will be exchanged for money. So begins The Spies of Warsaw, the brilliant new novel by Alan Furst, lauded by the New York Times as "America's preeminent spy novelist."
War is coming to Europe. French and German intelligence operatives are locked in a life-and-death struggle on the espionage battlefield. At the French embassy, the new military attaché, Colonel Jean-Francois Mercier, a decorated hero of the 1914 war, is drawn into a world of abduction, betrayal, and intrigue in the diplomatic salons and back alleys of Warsaw. At the same time, the handsome aristocrat finds himself in a passionate love affair with a Parisian woman of Polish heritage, a lawyer for the League of Nations.
Colonel Mercier must work in the shadows, amid an extraordinary cast of venal and dangerous characters — Colonel Anton Vyborg of Polish military intelligence; the mysterious and sophisticated Dr. Lapp, senior German Abwehr officer in Warsaw; Malka and Viktor Rozen, at work for the Russian secret service; and Mercier’s brutal and vindictive opponent, Major August Voss of SS counterintelligence. And there are many more, some known to Mercier as spies, some never to be revealed.
"Furst (The Foreign Correspondent) solidifies his status as a master of historical spy fiction with this compelling thriller set in 1937 Poland. Col. Jean-Franois Mercier, a military attach at the French embassy in Warsaw who runs a network of spies, plays a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with his German adversaries. When one of Mercier's main agents, Edvard Uhl, an engineer at a large Dsseldorf arms manufacturer who's been a valuable source on the Nazis' new weapons, becomes concerned that the Gestapo is on to him, Mercier initially dismisses Uhl's fears. Mercier soon realizes that the risk to his spy is genuine, and he's forced to scramble to save Uhl's life. The colonel himself later takes to the field when he hears reports that the German army is conducting maneuvers in forested terrain. Even readers familiar with the Germans' attack through the Ardennes in 1940 will find the plot suspenseful. As ever, Furst excels at creating plausible characters and in conveying the mostly tedious routines of real espionage. Author tour. (June)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
The protagonist of Alan Furst's 10th novel is Jean-Francois Mercier de Boutillon, a 46-year-old French lieutenant colonel who, in the fall of 1937, has just been posted to Warsaw as military attache in the French embassy there. A widower — his wife, to whom he was devoted, died three years before — with two grown daughters, he is a man of deliberate, careful manner. He is also a realist. Over and... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) over again he is seized by "a certain apprehension, a shadow of war," but almost everyone with whom he deals either doesn't see it or denies its existence. A German, Dr. Lapp, who comes to him in hopes of assistance in unseating Hitler, puts it best: "Do you know the Latin proverb Mundus vult decipi, ergo decepiatur? Herr Hitler's favorite saying: The world wants to be deceived, therefore let it be deceived. And he isn't wrong. Newspapers on the continent explain every day why there won't be war. And I assure you there will be, unless the right people determine to stop it." Obviously Lapp and his tiny band of allies get nowhere in their plans against Hitler, and Mercier is not able to do a great deal to help them. But that is not Mercier's chief preoccupation; indeed, it is only a subplot in this well-constructed, intelligent novel. Though he is not officially a French spy, he undertakes missions in the Polish countryside aimed at discovering Germany's military plans, in the first of which he and his driver come across what Mercier knows as a "dragon's tooth," or "tank trap." It has been covered up; the driver asks why, and Mercier replies: "'Maybe changed their minds. Maybe it wasn't where they wanted it. Maybe there's another one a few hundred yards north, who can say, but that's the likely explanation. Or, if you wanted to think another way, an army that's going to attack, with a tank force, will get rid of the static defenses between them and the enemy border. Because, then, they're in the way.' Mercier's technical description barely suggested what he feared. This was nothing less than preparation for war; a classic, telltale sign of planned aggression. The journalists could wring their hands from morning edition to night — War is coming! War is coming! — but what he'd found in the darkness wasn't opinion, it was an abandoned tank trap, defense put aside, and what came next was offense, attack, houses burning in the night." Other signs abound. A Polish engineer named Edvard Uhl — "an ordinary-looking man, who led a rather ordinary life, a more-than-decent life, in the small city of Breslau: a wife and three children, a good job — as a senior engineer at an ironworks and foundry, a subcontractor to the giant Rheinmetall firm in Dusseldorf" — is recruited by Mercier to spy for the French, smuggling German plans and designs out of the factory. The bait is an ersatz Polish countess — she actually is Hana Musser, "a half-Czech, half-German woman of uncertain age, who, two years earlier, had fled the fulminous Nazi politics of the Sudetenland and settled in Warsaw" — who works for Mercier and had lured the panting Uhl into an affair. Uhl needs money to keep things going with her, and Mercier provides it, in exchange for information. But suddenly Uhl disappears, abducted by German agents. All of this, Mercier realizes, "had turned a desk job into something very much like a fight, so to walk away now would be to walk away from a fight. He had never done that, and he never would." Called back to Paris to meet with superiors, Mercier finds only one sympathetic ear. It belongs to Gen. de Beauvilliers, who "was famously the intellectual of the Conseil Superieur de la Guerre, the high committee of military strategy, and was said to be one of the most powerful men in France, though precisely what he did, and how he did it, remained almost entirely in shadow." The two have a clandestine luncheon during which Mercier says, "The Germans are building tanks. I was watching them, until I lost an agent. And they're planning maneuvers in Schramberg — in the Black Forest. They are, I believe, thinking hard about the Ardennes Forest, in Belgium, where the Maginot Line ends." De Beauvilliers is aware of this, but replies: "We are, in France, obsessed by the idea of great men — nobody else would build the Pantheon. So Marshal Petain, the hero of Verdun, much honored, idolized, even, has persuaded himself that he is omniscient. In a recent pamphlet, he wrote, 'The Ardennes forest is impenetrable; and if the Germans were imprudent enough to get entangled in it, we should seize them as they came out!'" Nobody with even the most cursory knowledge of 20th-century history needs to be told that this is, as Mercier puts it, "nonsense." In June 1940 — two and a half years after this fictional exchange — the German army smashed through the Ardennes Forest, and France almost immediately fell; that same month Marshall Philippe Petain accepted the presidency of the Vichy government, Hitler's French puppet. But in the years leading up to that calamitous month the French military high command was so wedded to the Maginot Line that dissent, no matter how informed and eloquent, was pointless. Mercier's contemporary and acquaintance Charles de Gaulle tried to awaken his fellow officers, but to no avail. As De Beauvilliers tells Mercier: "Too bad about the Poles, but they've got to be made to understand we aren't coming to help them, no matter what the treaties say. We might be able to, if de Gaulle and his allies ... had their way, but they won't get it. French military doctrine is in the hands of Marshall Petain, de Gaulle's enemy, and he won't let go." Obviously Furst holds Petain in contempt, with ample reason, but thumbing his nose at a dead general isn't the point of "The Spies of Warsaw." What Furst wants to show is how great is the human capacity for self-deception and the terrible places into which it can lead us. The reader knows at the outset that Poland and France soon will fall and that millions will die, including many of those whom we meet in these pages, and Furst means us to feel frustration and anger as the prevailing idee fixe opens the way to Hitler's acts of aggression. The months following Mercier's arrival in Warsaw were civilized Europe's last chance to save itself, and it failed the test, in great measure because of Germany's overwhelming military superiority but also because too many leaders of the free nations simply refused to acknowledge reality. As all of this should make clear, Furst is that rarity, a writer of popular fiction who is also a serious novelist. This is the third of his novels that I've reviewed, and the steady growth of his achievement almost can be measured with calipers. At times his prose can get a little strained, as he reaches a little far for effects, but it's now much more controlled than it was a dozen years ago in "The World at Night." Like a handful of other writers who have turned espionage fiction into something approximating art — John le Carre, of course, and Charles McCarry — Furst combines the craft of entertainment with the exploration of important themes, and in no way does the entertainment diminish the themes. "The Spies of Warsaw" is entertaining from first page to last. It has spies in just about every nook and cranny, many of them motivated not by patriotism or valor or anything like that, but by "the gods of greed." Furst clearly enjoys writing about sexual liaisons and romantic entanglements, and there are plenty of both herein, including a delicious little scene with a delicious little Polish princess, memories of youthful trysts with an adventuresome cousin, and a romance with the "very striking" Anna Szarbek, a lawyer with the League of Nations. Through it all Jean-Francois Mercier moves steadily onward, an honorable man in a treacherous world. Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj(at symbol)washpost.com. Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Nobody does this stuff better than Furst because nobody can dramatize like he can the horrible realization that somebody else's politics will soon obliterate daily life as you know it." Booklist (Starred Review)
"Furst's latest novel is sure to be counted as one of the very best of the historical espionage genre. Literate, admirably plotted, and featuring a memorable protagonist, it is realistic and sad but hopeful and romantic." Library Journal (Starred Review)
"Furst cuts back a bit on the usual tension, but there is all of the wonderfully wistful late-'30s atmosphere that is his specialty." Kirkus Reviews
"Mr. Furst has created this book on a broad canvas. And he succeeds in doing so without losing sight of his narrative focus." Janet Maslin, New York Times
Set in Warsaw, Selsia, and Paris, Furst's stunning, action-packed new thriller combines espionage with deadly romance, all happening during the rearing threat of Hitler's gathering war against Europe.
An autumn evening in 1937. A German engineer arrives at the Warsaw railway station. Tonight, he will be with his Polish mistress; tomorrow, at a workers' bar in the city's factory district, he will meet with the military attache from the French embassy. Information will be exchanged for money. So begins The Spies of Warsaw, the brilliant new novel by Alan Furst, lauded by The New York Times as America's preeminent spy novelist.
War is coming to Europe. French and German intelligence operatives are locked in a life-and-death struggle on the espionage battlefield. At the French embassy, the new military attache, Colonel Jean-Francois Mercier, a decorated hero of the 1914 war, is drawn into a world of abduction, betrayal, and intrigue in the diplomatic salons and back alleys of Warsaw. At the same time, the handsome aristocrat finds himself in a passionate love affair with a Parisian woman of Polish heritage, a lawyer for the League of Nations.
Colonel Mercier must work in the shadows, amid an extraordinary cast of venal and dangerous characters-Colonel Anton Vyborg of Polish military intelligence; the mysterious and sophisticated Dr. Lapp, senior German Abwehr officer in Warsaw; Malka and Viktor Rozen, at work for the Russian secret service; and Mercier's brutal and vindictive opponent, Major August Voss of SS counterintelligence. And there are many more, some known to Mercier as spies, some never to be revealed.
The Houston Chronicle has described Furst as the greatest living writer of espionage fiction. The Spies of Warsaw is his finest novel to date-the history precise, the writing evocative and powerful, more a novel about spies than a spy novel, exciting, atmospheric, erotic, and impossible to put down.
As close to heaven as popular fiction can get.
-Los Angeles Times, about The Foreign Correspondent
What gleams on the surface in Furst's books is his vivid, precise evocation of mood, time, place, a letter-perfect re-creation of the quotidian details of World War II Europe that wraps around us like the rich fug of a wartime railway station.
A rich, deeply moving novel of suspense that is equal parts espionage thriller, European history and love story.
-Herbert Mitgang, The New York Times, about Dark Star
Some books you read. Others you live. They seep into your dreams and haunt your waking hours until eventually they seem the stuff of memory and experience. Such are the novels of Alan Furst, who uses the shadowy world of espionage to illuminate history and politics with immediacy.
-Nancy Pate, Orlando Sentinel
About the Author
Often compared to Graham Greene and Eric Ambler, Alan Furst is a master of the spy thriller and one of the great war novelists of our time. He is the author of The Kingdom of Shadows, The Foreign Correspondent, Night Soldiers, Dark Star, The Polish Officer, and The World at Night. He lives in Sag Harbor, New York. Visit the author's website at www.alanfurst.net.
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