WWII Spy Book Review – The Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst

The reviews on this site are more and more bookish, which I really don’t mind but perhaps you do. For me, a book is a film with better plot and no budget restraints, so they are almost always much more enjoyable than a film. Besides, I can read them over time and not have to watch a full two hour production. I do love my films, but really appreciate the books more. Here’s a recent read:

I’ve read all the Night Soldiers books in order, up to The Spies of Warsaw. I love Furst, and I love his style. Ever since the first book in the series, which was and still is my favorite, I have tracked with interest the recurring places, the appearances of cross-over characters, and the rich scene-crafting. But as one reviewer has noted, Furst tends to write the same story, but in a different context, each time. I can sympathize with such an estimate, I see it more clearly now too. But that isn’t a bad thing. But by book ten of the Night Soldiers series, and after the last installment being the least enjoyable for me, the realization does occur to me that I know how its going to play out. Furst admits this with no apologies in various interviews, and is not shy to say these are yarns to be read and enjoyed for what they are. They are very, very well written novels. I do seem to consider Dark Voyage a bit of a different flavor than the rest, if you are looking for one that seems slightly different in form. And Night Soldiers, the original, is likewise a more beefy and sweeping saga than all the others, perhaps because it was the first. The author said he thought (wrongly) that a longer book was a better book back then. And Night Soldiers, well, that one was just a fantastic piece of descriptive writing with some exceptionally powerful twists and turns.

I did enjoy this installment, and it was full of gripping drama and the typically dense web of affiliations and connections between people and places that marks a Furst novel. I felt a real empathy and connection to the protagonist, Mercier, a French military attache working in Warsaw. As a near-burned out decorated war hero turned military attaché to the French embassy in Poland, his resignation letter was kept in the desk drawer for that one day where it all was too much. But when he realized the plight of the people of Europe, who he often stopped to ponder their fate as the rumbles of war were growing, Mercier decided he would act, and do what he could to undermine the Nazi regime. Centered mostly on the discovery of how Germany planned to invade France – which everyone knew would be through the Ardennes forest and not across the vaunted Maginot line – the search for clues that would prove German intentions to the stubborn French military and political leaders was an uphill, and losing battle. This drive to find the German invasion plan, or at least decisive evidence that would leave no doubt – propelled Mercier into the world of the clandestine, the forests of Germany, the seedy hotels of Europe’s occupied zones, and to dark factories where shady characters lurked. Characters who were looking for him.

Each Furst book has one or two main love interests, and usually they are the typically attractive 30-something go-getters who factor into the story in a key manner. I felt a more positive connection to his love interest, Anna, than I usually feel for Furst’s women. But what I enjoy is that even minor characters like maids and hotel matrons with the late rent check on their mind have some depth to them. The story had its share of seedy a and dangerous villains, and several tense situations that kept me reading.

I noticed people and events in this novel that I had encountered in previous stories, and I like that. This is one of the delightful devices that Furst uses to keep us involved. When I read a reference to a meeting or person who is not outright mentioned, but we know that fellow is the guy from Foreign Correspondent or The World at Night, I feel like an insider, a real fan. I want to then go back and read al the books to log all the characters and connect all the lines. I think Mr. Furst mentioned in an interview that there was a guy who had done just that. I think people like to feel like they are part of the Night Soldiers world, its one reason the series succeeds even through some of the less-popular titles. The stories do not seem cheap because of cross-over characters, or a “Furst universe”, like so many series do.

This tale was compelling, the characters were believably dense without resorting to bare prose, the historical background insightful, informative and accurate, and Furst’s writing as masterful as ever.

As always, keep a running record of characters and identify the various bureaus, ministries and departments with whom people are associated; not aliases and any instances of a nom de guerre. Especially if you read smaller sections at a time and stretch the book out over weeks of reading. This will also come in handy when you recognize a character from a previous Furst book, you will have some background information. I also find myself frequently looking up place names and locations on Google Earth, and traveling with the story via street view. Loads of fun.

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