Title: The Spies of Warsaw
Author: Alan Furst
Furst, Alan (2008). The Spies of Warsaw. New York: Random House
- Military attachés–Fiction.
- Warsaw (Poland)–Fiction.
Date Posted: April 11, 2017
Reviewed by Alessandra Stanley
In Alan Furst’s (2008) spy thriller, a French diplomat keeps a nervous eye on Hitler’s troops.
The queasy thrill of prewar espionage doesn’t come from the prospect of war, or even the spying; it comes from the moral compromises forced by fear and accommodation.
Alan Furst has always had a knack for conveying how the one begets the other. “The light had gone out, it seemed, the very notion of heroism excised,” is how he described Stalinist Russia in Dark Star, an early novel. That world was “now filled with soft, bruised, frightened people scheming over a few lumps of coal or a spoonful of sugar.”
Spy novels tend to focus on the few people who rise above self-interest, but the best also give voice to those who don’t. Furst’s , The Spies of Warsaw, begins with just such a specimen: Edvard Uhl, a plodding, middle-aged German engineer with business in Poland who on the eve of the war is seduced, then blackmailed into slipping military secrets to French intelligence. Uhl feels the occasional pang of fright, but not guilt. “In such chaotic times,” his French handler reasons with him, “smart people understood that their first loyalty was to themselves and their families.”
Characters who are braver or more farsighted have a special doomed poignancy. Furst’s tales, usually set in Paris and Eastern Europe and entwined around the Nazis or the Soviet secret police, are infused with the melancholy romanticism of “Casablanca,” and also a touch of Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon.”
The Spies of Warsaw follows Jean-François Mercier de Boutillon, a French aristocrat and veteran of World War I who, as the military attaché in Warsaw, studies German preparations for war. He runs agents and conducts some risky fieldwork of his own, but it doesn’t take much for him to deduce that Hitler plans to go around the Maginot Line and invade through Belgium: articles in German military journals all but spell it out. Official France pays no heed.
Most assignments in historical thrillers are futile: readers know what’s coming, while those characters who suspect the worst cannot fully comprehend the looming cataclysm even as they risk their lives trying to forestall it. The mission in a Furst novel is never as interesting as the men and women who volunteer—or are forced—to complete it. Polish counts, SS officers, French film producers, damsels and demi-mondaines are drawn into the action, but so are Jewish Bolsheviks, Slav partisans, Hungarian diplomats and Bulgarian fishermen.
From Lisbon to Malmo, Furst’s novels are full of stark contrasts and weird congruities: he links the Bulgarian National Union marching along the Danube to expatriates in Paris ordering Champagne and another platter of oysters at the fashionable Brasserie Heininger.
As in Balzac’s Human Comedy, characters who loom large in one novel reappear as minor figures in another, sometimes at the next table in Heininger’s, where one mirror, cracked by a bullet, is left unrepaired as a memorial to the day thugs shot up the dining room and left the Bulgarian headwaiter dead in the ladies room.
It is there, in fact, over choucroute and Champagne, that Mercier briefs one of the few French generals who share his mistrust of Pétain’s defense strategy. The other, of course, is Charles de Gaulle, after whom Furst has clearly modeled Mercier; the fictional Mercier is an old friend of de Gaulle’s and shares much of his life story. Like de Gaulle, Mercier has aristocratic roots, graduated from military school in the class of 1912, spent time in a German prison camp during World War I and helped Polish troops fight the Red Army in 1920. But whereas de Gaulle eventually returned to Paris, Furst’s hero is redeployed to the French Embassy in Poland.
Furst’s early works were thickly braided with history, subplots and dozens of vividly drawn minor characters. But even masters of the genre can slow down, stretch material and fall back on formula. His previous novel, The Foreign Correspondent, about an Italian newspaperman in Paris and Berlin, was not very convincing. The Spies of Warsaw is more satisfying, but it too seems thin: the plot is spare, and Mercier —a tall, handsome, rich widower—is de Gaulle as Harlequin romance hero.
Furst is often likened to Graham Greene and John le Carré, in part because he delves so persuasively into the darker corners of history, marking the ambivalence and moral ambiguities of those who play a part in shaping it. He is equally at ease describing the hors d’oeuvres at an embassy party and the Soviet spy schools where recruits are taught to undermine the West but quickly discover that more fearsome enemies lie in the next cot or cubicle.
His most memorable heroes turn to clandestine operations not because they are honorable or dutiful but because they have little choice. In Night Soldiers, Khristo Stoianev, on the run from local fascists, is recruited by a Soviet agent and finds himself trapped in the paranoid and murderous N.K.V.D. at the time of the purges—he is pushed, like tumbleweed in a storm, from Moscow to the Spanish Civil War, then to the shady émigré community of Paris, French prison, the French resistance and eventually New York. In Dark Star, André Szara, a foreign correspondent for Pravda in the 1930s (modeled on the Russian journalist Ilya Ehrenburg), knows better than to say no when his government’s security services request favors in Ostend, Berlin and Prague.
Writers sometimes save the best for first. The Spies of Warsaw is not as richly complex as earlier Furst novels, but it is still smarter and more soulful than most espionage novels being written today.
 Alessandra Stanley, “Intrigue of Nations,” New York Times (June 29, 2008). Downloaded April 7, 2017. Alessandra Stanley is the chief television critic for The Times. A version of this review appears in print on p. BR9 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: “Intrigue of Nations.”
 “Demimonde” (pl. demimondaine): a distinct circle or world that is often an isolated part of a larger world a night in the disco demimonde; especially : one having low reputation or prestige
 “Choucroute,” is a corruption of the German Sauerkraut.