Monday, August 23, 2010

Review of The Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst (Phoenix 2008)

Jean-Francois Mercier, the French military attaché to pre-war Poland, spends his time sweet talking the Polish military into buying French armaments, running various informants and spies, working the embassy cocktail circuit, and dealing with the internal politics of French military intelligence.  A veteran of the First World War, and contemporary of de Gaulle, Mercier is confident and resourceful.  When he foils the attempted abduction of Edvard Uhl, a German engineer and informant working on tank armament, he creates a hole in his knowledge network.  Uhl has suggested that the Wehrmacht is testing tanks in hilly, forest terrain.  Mercier needs to establish the veracity of the claim as it suggests that if the Germans attack France it will be through the Ardennes, a route deemed impossible by French high command.  Whilst plotting and undertaking his various excursions, he falls in love with a beautiful League of Nations lawyer, who is already in a relationship with a Russian journalist.  With the threat of war looming, Mercier must find a way to uncover the Nazis invasion plans and steal Anna from her present partner.

Furst excels at weaving the humdrum of everyday life through a larger geopolitical story spanning a number of countries.  And so it is with The Spies of Warsaw, which traces the convoluted life of Jean-Francois Mercier in the lead up to the Second World War, and his various dalliances and missions.  The plotting is slow and ponderous at times, and occasionally a little clunky, but Furst works to draw the reader in and tug them along, and as with previous books the narrative is highly informative, detailing the place, social relations and politics of the era.  The characterisation is, for the most part, excellent, though some of the Nazi thugs and French military personnel drift toward caricature at times.  The story itself was quite muted and although the tension should have been ratcheted up at certain points, as Mercier undertook dangerous missions, the narrative really lacked an edge.  The biggest let down, however, was the ending: the book very nearly sailing through the air as I read the last paragraph.  In fact, it would have been a stronger end if that paragraph had been omitted.  Overall, an enjoyable enough read, but not one of his best.


Paul D. Brazill said...

Having lived in Warsaw for 4 years, I should check that out. What's his best book?

Rob Kitchin said...

I've only read 4 or 5 of them. I enjoyed The Foreign Correspondent and The World at Night. There is also another, The Polish Officer, which starts as the Germans invade Poland and follows the main character as he tries to get the Polish gold reserve and files out of the country and to set up resistance networks. I have a review of The Foreign Correspondent -

pattinase (abbott) said...

My husband is a big fan of Furst.