on 21 June 2008
I was disappointed by 'Dark Voyage', thought that 'The Foreign Correspondent' was a slight improvement, but am delighted that Alan Furst has re-found his unique style and voice with 'The Spies of Warsaw'.
It's a real return to the high quality of his earlier boooks like 'The World at Night' and 'Dark Star' and their masterly evocations of period and setting - here principally Warsaw in the late 1930s, with the looming menace of Hitler's Germany on one side and Stalin's Russia on the other.
French military attache and intelligence officer Colonel Mercier, a minor aristocrat and wounded veteran of the Great War, is contemplating tendering his resignation, but dutifully plays his part in the diplomatic shadowplays, where the spies are known, but their covers are politely maintained by all, where his Polish hosts are probing for France's intentions when war comes, the Russians make overtures to recruit him, and the competing German agencies are fighting their own internal struggles...
But then one of Mercier's agents makes a mistake, and sets into motion a chain of events that forces Mercier back into the action, as he has the chance to uncover a vital part of Hitler's war plans.
We move between the embassy salons and the backstreets, the gilded restaurants and the brothels, the 5-star hotels and the rented rooms - infused with the author's sweetly melancholic appreciation of a still-graceful Europe sliding into conflict. There's romance too, plus the thumbnail character sketches and internal lives of the protagonists, sparsely but skilfully drawn in Furst's trademark style of hints and highlights - not too much, just outlines that the reader fills in. And of course, the Brasserie Heininger makes a re-appearance...
If you're a Furst addict or have just discovered him, you're in for an enjoyable read.
on 30 July 2008
I'm a big fan of Alan Furst's novels but was a little disappointed with 'The Foreign Correspondent'. I enjoyed this one far more. I thought it was very much like a Le Carre story, concerning the life of spies. There is not a great deal of action, but a fair amount of suspense. I thought it a very complete story and we are even told the fate of the two main characters, at the end. Well to a certain point. Which is not always the case with the this authors novels.
At least two characters from his other stories are in this. Colonel Vyborg; and Doctor Lapp. Mentioned in one sentence only, is Captain De Milja of 'The Polish officer' which is my favorite.
The hero, Captain Mercier is a hard man, a decorated veteran of a cavalry engagement, rather like Nicholas Morath in 'Kingdom of Shadows'. He comes to suspect how the Germans will invade France, but convincing those above him proves difficult.
There is romance as always.
on 13 September 2008
I was somewhat disappointed with Furst's last book, "The Foreign Correspondent," but this book is more like his former pre-WWII spy novels. The year is 1937, the prospect of another war is looming, and Col. Mercier, a French military attache based in Warsaw, is given the task to discover how, should war break out, the Germans will attack France. Again we meet a cast of spies, civil servants and military officers, many of them world-weary and believing that war is inevitable. As in all his other novels, Furst includes a little romance, the Brasserie Heininger with its bullet-shattered mirror (that happens in his book Night Soldiers), the smoky night clubs, the rustic worker's bars. It's Furst's evocation of this era, the terse conversations, the atmosphere, which makes his books so good.
I didn't give it five stars as I still prefer his earlier novels, like Night Soldiers or The Polish Officer. These books were much longer, much meatier. I can't get enough of Alan Furst! If you are interested in espionage novels, or novels about WWII, Furst is definitely one to read.
Alan Furst has written a number of spy novels set in the late 1930s. Whilst they invariably take place in different locations with a new cast of characters, there are some links between the books. What sets his writing apart is the sense of authenticity and the way that the books ooze tension and menace.
This book is set predominantly in Warsaw, Poland, between 1937-38. A country caught between Communist Russia on one side and an increasingly militant Germany on the other. Our hero is Mercier, the "military attache" to the French embassy, whose job it is to uncover as much information as he possibly can about Germany's potential invasion plans for France. The story doesn't really follow one coherent path. Rather it is about the day to day realties of his job: contacts wooed and lost, promising leads than evaporate, leads that produce solid information which may or may not be acted on in Paris.
Mercier is a wonderful character, still grieving the loss of his wife three years earlier and regretful at the distance between him and his adult daughters. He dislikes wooing traitors and despairs about Germany's obviously aggressive intentions towards his country. When he meets Anna he senses that perhaps there is the possibility of some happiness in his future, but she is engaged to someone else and seems out of reach.
I can't think of another writer who does a better job of capturing the feel of the times. Despite the disjointed nature of the plot, this is well worth reading.
This is a new writer for me, but to judge by this book, one I shall seek out in the future. Set around the beginning of the Second World War it has some of the flavour of John Le Carre novels with clandestine meetings, possible double-agents and a feeling of tension over who are the goodies and who the baddies. The uncertainty keeps one reading to the very end of the book. I found this writer easier to follow than the complexities of Le Carre's novels. Furst is very adept at painting word pictures of his characters which helped me imagine them and so clearly differentiate among them. It's not all spies though, there is some relief from their murky world in the interludes about the affair between the 'hero' and his new love.
on 19 January 2013
Alan Furst is hailed on his books as 'widely recognised as a master of the historical spy novel' and by the New York Times as 'America's pre-eminent spy novelist'. The pity is that he is none of these things. The filters obviously omit Brit contenders like John Le Carre, Frederick Forsyth, Ian Fleming and one his novels are very comparable with: Eric Ambler. A look at lists of top US spy novelists reveals Tom Clancy, Martin Cruz Smith, Donald Hamilton (Matt Helm) and Edward S Aarons (Sam Duvell) while Furst is nowhere.
'Spies of Warsaw' is a weak romance without tension. Furst uses maps (Warsaw 1937, Paris 1939) and little details in his novels to show verisimilitude but you simply do not need to know the street the French Embassy was in in Warsaw before the war. Confidential discussions take place and secret names are revealed without a thought at cafe tables. No one worries about the enemy's ears. Melodrama is used to supply what tension there is outside the characters. Possible crisis moments are wasted. In the 'Black Front' section two Soviet GRU agents, Victor and Malka Rozen, are to be evacuated by aircraft. The only snag is a dairyman's cart that blocks the road, as they are not pursued by the Russians. Then he wastes a couple of pages where nothing happens but goodbyes being said. Even Colonel Bruner comes along from Paris on the plane to no purpose. The plane taxies away and is soon a 'black dot in the sky'.
Mercier has been warned by Polish Military Intelligence that the Nazis, led by August Voss of the SD, are after him and he needs to take care. Yet when he visits an arms factory he dismisses his driver, Marek. He is not even armed when three men approach to give him a beating when he comes out. He is saved by Marek who shoots the Nazi's driver and comes to his aid. "Who were they?" Marek said. "No idea, Mercier said. "They spoke German." "Then why...?" Mercier couldn't answer. He again pointlessly denies knowledge when they examine the dead Nazi driver. Then he goes home and takes his love interest out to a film. It is a wonder they didn't have a night in with slippers and pipe by the fire. So even where there should be danger and conflict everything is soon smoothed away.
The recent BBC production with David Tennant as Mercier tries to inject more drama into the story but makes it even worse. It extends Furst's story by needlessly adding a German double-cross that makes no sense and the evacuation of the Polish gold reserves. Furst's books lack the life and sparkle of Eric Ambler's who was much more a political animal and whose stories are more convincing.
on 14 July 2012
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.
on 28 January 2013
Not exciting enough for me by far. There was no real sense of danger at anytime. Quite bland all the way through. Reasonably good prose but it was broke down in sections about three times what a chapter would be expected to contain so unless your sessions are long you break in the middle of the (non) action. Don't pay more than 50 p for this or you will be disappointed.
on 9 February 2011
This is another excellent story of pre war Europe and the Murky world of Espionage. This time the Germans are more fleshed out, even though the story primarily concerns the French Military attaché to Poland. It does pose a major question if everyone knew war was coming, how could they not see it bypassing Frances fixed defences?I think this is a question to be answered in non fiction History books. Any recommendations?
The imagery of these novels is very intense you can almost smell the kerosene and Cordite. Feel the numbing greyness of the working class areas and the sparkling life of the diplomatic circle.
At the French embassy in 1937 Warsaw, the French military attaché Colonel Mercier is trying to deal with the problem of a somewhat feckless agent, Herr Edward Uhl. Soon, he is drawn into a world of intrigue and betrayal and is forced to embark on some dangerous missions himself. It doesn’t take him long to work out that Hitler plans to go around the Maginot line and invade through Belgium. He duly reports his findings but Official France chooses to ignore it. Pretty typical spy stuff.
Most spy novels I’ve tried seem to be full of heroic characters, able to rise above self-interest in their country’s cause, but Furst gives us real people. Uhl is a rather pathetic, self serving little man who has been duped and seduced into betraying his country and Mercier is an interesting character, not without flaws, who is equally at ease scrambling around a forest at night, spying on German troop movements and in the sophisticated world of the cocktail party.
Another obvious difference between Spies of Warsaw and most other spy fiction is that the plot is comparatively simple. Well, I could follow it, so it must be. True, Mercier steps out of his main mission to involve himself in a passionate affair which becomes entwined in the espionage but the main story rattles along at a fair old lick and completely engages the reader.
Furst, however, does more than that. This is a really polished piece of writing in which he recreates 1937 Warsaw vividly and poignantly. The reader is sharply aware that the elegant cafes where Mercier meets his colleagues would soon be under threat and that the pampered lives of his social set would soon disappear, never to return. “At mid afternoon, the Café Cleo was a perfect sanctuary: marble tables, black-and-white tiled floor, a bow window looking out on the avenue, where a less-favoured world hurried by.” But Furst is equally skilful in his portrayal of the back alleys and smoky workers’ bars on the Vistula River where some of the dirtiest deeds are perpetrated and he never neglects to frequently remind the reader that war is just around the corner. In the German town of Glogau, Uhl’s home town, we are told that there is a toy shop that ‘had stood there for years, closing only briefly, when the Jewish owner abruptly left for the city, then reopening in a day or two, the glass in the windows replaced by the new owner’.