Tuesday, 29 July 2008


The Spies Of Warsaw
Alan Furst
Weidenfeld & Nicholson 16.99
ISBN 9780297855415

'I think you like this kind of war,' Anna Szarbek tells the French military attache Jean-Francois Mercier, who of course is a spy, and this kind of war is of course no real war at all, just preparation for the war which they, in 1937 Warsaw, know is coming inevitably. 'This job has grown into me,' Mercier replies, and that could be the answer Alan Furst might give to the same question. 'This kind of war' has been his subject in nine previous novels, in which time he has recreated the black and white era of Thirties espionage with the precision, the emphasis on subtle shading of mood, the finely judged nuance of a Vermeer. What is particularly telling in this story is the way Mercier is himself made to serve as symbol of both the old, aristocratic Europe which is already in sharp, if ignorant, decline, and which is about to be blown away by Hitler's new world order. His family has a distinguised name, but their estates are in tatters, a metaphor for the nation and the old order.

Germany is preparing for war, and Mercier has spotted, indirectly, the evidence that their attack on France will come with tanks plowing through the Ardennes, something the French high command, secure behind their Maginot Line, regards as unthinkable. Meanwhile, the Nazis are becoming more and more active in Poland, and as they do, Polish intelligence, apart from the admirable Colonel Vyborg, whom Furst's regulars will recall from The Polish Officer, are more concerned with rounding up left-wingers, and protecting themselves from the Russians to their east.

Within Warsaw's world of espionage, and diplomacy, all is more gentlemanly, and Mercier finds himself beginning an affair with Anna, a French lawyer for the League of Nations, by definition a practitioner in an even-greater, more idealistic futility, whose family were Polish Jews. Every action has its ramifications, from the fate of Anna's former lover to the revenge of an SS officer whose kidnap plans in Warsaw Mercier foils. Meanwhile, Furst engages with all types of agents, and their motives, willing and unwilling, desperate or simply adjusting to the changing, and dangerous times. It proceeds at its own pace, the pieces linking tenuously, sometimes not at all, with the inevitability of failure an historical reality which, if anything, adds to the story's foggy atmosphere. More than anyone, Furst recalls Eric Ambler, particularly in the way his spies are often from the business world, motivated by personal greeds, and often people being forced into spying. In both cases, it is difficult to pretend one is engaged in a gentlemanly business.

The conclusion is more problematical, however, as Furst jumps ahead to the start of the war, and mentions that, 'after many adventures' (exactly the line Robert Mitchum uses in voice-over at the end of 'Tombstone'!), Mercier and Anna made their way to London, where they went to work for the French and Polish intelligence services. This suggests a sequel, if not multiple sequels, and even knowing that they make it to Britain, the story of their getting there, in Furst's hands, would not be disappointing.

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