There?s a little time to relax in this master?s new espionage thriller

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Michael Kenney
June 17, 2008

The Spies of Warsaw, By Alan Furst, Random House, 266 pp., $25

As "The Polish Officer," Alan Furst's 1995 novel of espionage, opened, it was Sept. 11, 1939, and German forces were closing in upon Warsaw. "War - fire and smoke - had made autumn come early, dead leaves rattled along the cobblestones and caught in the iron drain covers."

And as Colonel Anton Vyborg, director of the Polish Army's intelligence unit, was arranging the shipment of the nation's gold bullion reserves to temporary safety in Romania, he remarked sadly that even as the Germans had surrounded Warsaw, Russian armies were massing along Poland's eastern borders.

Colonel Vyborg appears now in Furst's "The Spies of Warsaw." The Polish capital is again a battlefield, but it is October 1937, and the battles are for intelligence.

And in place of - or as precursors of - battalions and regiments, there are the spies plying their edgy trade, the word "spy" never used in their dealings with their employers.

There are Germans and Russians in the game, soon to be allies in carving up Poland, now eyeing each other warily.

And also the French, in the person of Colonel Jean-Francois Mercier, the military attaché who is one of Furst's most fully-realized characters. An aristocrat, like Captain Alexander de Milja of "The Polish Officer"; wounded in the 1914 War against the Germans, and again fighting with a Polish cavalry unit against the Red Army in 1920; the assignment in Warsaw "a career victory."

"You are actually brave, aren't you," says Anna Szarbek as they engage each other during a not-quite-by-chance "adventure" on the Belgrade train.

Mercier's mission is to ferret out the German war plans as they may pertain to France, and that involves the cultivating of spies, the close study of German military manuals, and then secretly observing German tank maneuvers barely 40 miles from the French border.

But in this, Furst's 10th novel of espionage, there is time - no one expects a shooting war for a year, two, maybe three or four. And that allows Furst to craft a novel in which, without the urgency of combat, there is time and space to linger in the last days of peace and for him to do what he does so well - convey the sense of atmosphere.

There is the Café Cleo, on "a lively and elegant street" in Warsaw, where Mercier meets with one of his agents: ". . . marble tables, black-and-white tiled floor, a bow window looking out on the avenue, where a less-favored world hurried by. The small room was almost full; the customers chattered away, read the papers, played chess, drank foamy cups of hot chocolate with whipped cream; their dogs, mostly beagles, lay attentive under the tables, waiting for cake crumbs."

Or, the rue Saint-Simon, Mercier's Paris residence: "Here, in the depths of the Seventh Arrondissement, the residents were rich, quiet, and cold. . . . A walled city, hiding formal gardens, silent monasteries, Napoleonic barracks, and foreign embassies. One saw the residents only now and again: retired army officers in dark suits, women of the nobility, perfect in afternoon Chanel."

And there are the precisely chosen details. When a defecting Soviet agent tells Mercier of her likely fate, she does not just say, "the knock on the door at midnight," but adds, "nine grams," which Furst explains is "the weight of a revolver bullet, Soviet slang for execution."

As always in his novels, Furst guides his readers through what may be unfamiliar territory - so cleverly that you may not realize he has done so, often by reporting the book, the document, the newspaper story that Mercier is reading.

Toward the end of "The Polish Officer," Furst uses a striking image of "a wolf, a grey shadow trotting along the river . . . pads silent on the ice." To de Milja, it suggests that "at last the world has frozen. . . . A winter that would never end."

Here, in "The Spies of Warsaw," the image of a wolf suggests the coming of that winter. In Warsaw, an early snow "[had] turned the street white and silent. Out in the countryside, the first paw prints of wolves were seen near the villages."

Michael Kenney is a freelance writer who lives in Cambridge.

more stories like this

  • Email
  • Email
  • Print
  • Print
  • Single page
  • Single page
  • Reprints
  • Reprints
  • Share
  • Share
  • Comment
  • Comment
  • Share on DiggShare on Digg
  • Tag with Save this article
  • powered by
Your Name Your e-mail address (for return address purposes) E-mail address of recipients (separate multiple addresses with commas) Name and both e-mail fields are required.
Message (optional)
Disclaimer: does not share this information or keep it permanently, as it is for the sole purpose of sending this one time e-mail.