More than ten years ago, I picked an Alan Furst novel off my local library shelves. It was Night Soldiers which turned out to be the first in his series of pre Second World War and Second World War espionage stories. As a spy fiction fan, the tale felt a little bit unusual to be and it left me with a curious sense of satisfaction. A few months later I came across another, I can’t remember which, and that too impressed me. I completed this random selection until, after completing Spies of the Balkans, I realised that there were no more. I decided to read them all again, this time in the order in which they were published. Midway through this task, Mission to Paris was published but I decided to postpone this treat until I’d completed my second readings.
I’ve reached The Spies of Warsaw and, having completed it, thought I’d put my thoughts on paper about Alan Furst’s novels in general and this novel in particular. The Spies of Warsaw has been recently filmed by the BBC and was shown in January and I believe that it was recently screened in the USA. It was, I understand, the first screen adaptation of a Furst work and I hope it means that his novels are getting the wide recognition that they deserve.
The Spies of Warsaw opens with a delicious honey trap. The victim, a German engineer, knows exactly what he’s being drawn into and the femme fatale who springs the trap shows such tenderness towards the victim you could almost believe she loved him. Having been ensnared in the web, the German engineer meets his French contact Mercier, the central character in the novel. Mercier, the Military Attache in the French embassy in Warsaw is typical of many, but not all, of Furst’s heroes. He is middle-aged, comes from an aristocratic background, is a faithful, passionate and romantic lover and a slightly reluctant spy. In The Spies of Warsaw, he keeps a letter of resignation tucked away in his desk. But he is, without doubt courageous and, when he tackles a task, he does so with great commitment.
Furst has the priceless gift of making his novels appear to be written in the time in which they were set. His plots are completely credible, such is the volume of research that backs up his story telling. You can almost smell the cigar smoke and fine food in Parisian restaurants and Warsaw embassy parties. Furst has been compared with Eric Ambler and Graham Greene who were contemporary not historical writers like Furst. and this comparison is praise indeed.
The Spies of Warsaw opens in 1937 and the reader is immediately dragged into a feeling of insecurity. Something is about to happen. However much the Warsaw diplomatic corps and aristocracy enjoy the social round, the shadow of their German neighbours is always there. Pre-war tensions are everywhere. Furst’s characters are fascinating. They are either good, bad or tragic but never two dimensional. The SS villains are not cartoon characters in the mode of those in Dennis Wheatley novels but sinister, threatening yet frequently vulnerable. The prose is simple and beautifully constructed. The dialogue convincing and the plot exciting. Anyone wishing to get a sense of time and place of pre-war Central Europe and enjoy espionage fiction at its best should read The Spies of Warsaw.