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Lacks crisis and tension
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.