Wednesday, March 23, 2011

17. The Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst

There is a great little cordonnerie (cobbler) near my neighbourhood that also has a small wooden display on the counter of used books for sale. It tends towards "literature" trade paperbacks, though every now and then they have some genre stuff. The place also has a cleaning service, so I've been going there more regularily and realized that the stock changes. I asked the owner about it and he told me he has a deal with a guy who comes by every Thursday and changes all the books. He also keeps track of sales by checking the remaining inventory, so the owner of the store doesn't have to bother with any records. He just gets a cut of the sales. Last week, I found this Alan Furst novel. I swear I had read in one of the book blogs I follow a lukewarm review of a different novel of his, but now I can't find it. In any case, he has a reputation of being one of the better contemporary spy authors, with perhaps a bit of hyperbole attached as well.

Spies of Warsaw is about exactly what the title says it's about (which I appreciate). It takes place in Warsaw in 1937 as the Nazi threat is becoming a real possibility for war. It's an awesome period for espionage and an awesome location. Poland, being third in line in Hitler's plans for expansion, after Austria and czechoslovakia, is an important information depot for all the other european powers. The protagonist is Jean-Francois Mercier, an ex-soldier and now agent working for the French embassy in Warsaw. He is of the aristocracy, comes from a long line of soldiers, and has a sweet pad in Warsaw, a family apartment in Paris and an old farm in the French country. He is pretty into his job.

There is no single plot line here, but rather a semi-tangled web of operations that Mercier has to undertake: making regular pick-ups from a german engineer he has set up with a mistress, helping two Russian spies defect, getting together with a hot polish League of Nations lawyer, making contact with a hunted anti-Hitler Nazi and so on. All of it is compelling, rich with period detail and atmosphere. I've read that Furst is often compared to Patrick O'Brian, in that it is historical fiction. I'd say that is accurate, minus the rich language and profound human warmth. Furst sometimes errs in trying to be a bit too historically accurate and in context. References to Buster Keaton or an article by a leading Nazi seem slightly forced. At times, the language also seems contemporary (though how would I know)? But these are minor complaints. I studied this period in college and I still find it fascinating today and Furst does an excellent job of bringing it to life. Another thing that I enjoyed is that the narrative doesn't try to hard to force excitement on the reader. There were lots of points where I thought we were heading into a traditional action climax, but instead situations resolved themselves in a much more organic and realistic way, thus creating a more satisfying depth.

I did some reading around and a lot of people feel his work suffers in the later years. This was one of the more recent (2008) and it was pretty darned good. I'll definitely keep an eye out for the earlier books. There is one that takes place on a tramp steamer that looks right up my alley.


W said...

Oh man, this is (has been for a while) one of my next two or three reads. I always get a little thrill seeing my queued books on someone else's shelf/table/blog...:)

OlmanFeelyus said...

I like it too, but the problem is I can never actually read their posts until I've read the book for fear of spoilers!

Book Glutton said...

I felt the same way when you read Margaret Millar recently. I've been looking for her books for a while, thinking they are going to be a great discovery and then - BAM! - you read two of them. And I've seen a few other bloggers write about her lately, too. Its like there are signals out there that some of us are picking up on.

OlmanFeelyus said...

All I can think of to say in reply to that is that the internet is kind of awesome in some ways!