Alan Furst’s suspense novels of eastern Europe have become the critics’ choice among recent writers of espionage tales set in the shadow of Nazi and Soviet political power.
His recent The Spies of Warsaw (Random House), set in 1937, takes the spy genre to sophisticated heights while depicting a setting which, in less than a decade, would be obliterated by the German army.
Furst’s hero is the self-effacing, though still-dashing, Jean-Francois Mercier, who is the military attaché at the French Embassy in Warsaw. A hero of World War I, Mercier is well schooled in the falsities and fiascoes of international diplomacy, and he has little regard for his own country’s military preparedness in the event of another massive German assault on France.
Part of the suspense that drives The Spies of Warsaw derives from Mercier’s premonition of coming dangers, “a certain apprehension, a shadow of war.” And he is motivated by this apprehension to plan a number of undercover excursions over the German border, where getting caught would not necessarily mean death, but would, at least, end his career. Through his discoveries, Mercier builds a reliable argument for the kind of war the Germans are planning – its differences from the trench warfare of World War I, including the increased reliance on tanks to plow through stretches of forest, making the French Maginot Line a useless defence.
The Spies of Warsaw presents Mercier as being free of the preconceived notions of prewar Europe. He is at odds with his own military commanders, with the appeasement of the English, and the isolationism and self-interest of such countries as Canada and the United States.
On one of Mercier’s spy missions into German territory, he encounters the grotesque quality of German anti-Jewish propaganda as he and his driver pass through “pretty Schwabisch villages. Every one of them had its Christbaum, a tall evergreen in the centre of town, with candles lit as darkness fell, and a star on top. There were also candles in every window, and red-berried holly wreaths hung on the doors. By the side of the road, at the entry to each village, stood a sign attacking the Jews. This was, Mercier thought, a kind of competition, for none of the signs were the same. Juden dirfen nicht bleiben – ‘Jews must not stay here’ – was followed by “Wer die Juden unterstuzt fordert den Kommunissmus, ‘Who helps the Jews helps communism…’”
Mercier is not a Judeophile and needn’t speechify about the madness of Nazism for readers to appreciate his ethical view of prewar anti-Semitism. He is an inheritor of the tradition of existential heroes found in the fiction of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Ernest Hemingway. Furst’s notable additions to the genre include Mercier’s successful romance with a Polish woman he meets in the course of his work, and his deep feelings for Warsaw, its cultural effervescence and variety.
In a few striking set pieces, Furst brings to life the coffee-house culture of Praga, across the Vistula River from Warsaw’s main centre, the nightlife and country houses of the city’s elite, and the Jewish quarter, Muranow, where Nalewki Street offers up “kosher butchers, pushcarts piled with old clothes or pots and pans, men in caftans and fur hats, hurrying along through the snow.”
These atmospheric qualities and the book’s rootedness in its particular time and place make it a more satisfying read than its counterparts by lesser spy writers, and even more satisfying than the hard-boiled work of Chandler and Hemingway, in which the hero’s moral code is tested through his interaction with an empty and cynical surrounding culture. Mercier feels deeply for Warsaw, which he fears is doomed. It is this quality that makes The Spies of Warsaw more than just a narrative of suspense, but one of deep commitment to the lost causes of recent European history.