Furst, Alan. The Spies of Warsaw.

NY: Random House, 2008.

I’m not ordinarily a heavy consumer of espionage novels — with the strong exception of John Le Carre, whom I put in a class by himself; his plots and characters are almost Shakespearean. But the critics continue to rave about Furst as the leading writer of spy stories, and he’s been turning them out for twenty years now, so I decided I had better give him a try. Where Le Carre’s stories are set in the Cold War and after, Furst deals mostly with the late 1930s, the period just before World War II, which everyone who was paying attention knew was coming.

The subject of this one is (as the title says) the community of military and political spies, analysts, and intelligence-gatherers in Warsaw in 1937-38. The focus is on Lieut. Col. Jean-François Mercier, French military attaché and a combat veteran, who isn’t too thrilled with his assignment — but Warsaw, a cultured capital, is vastly preferable to some colonial outpost in the malarial tropics, and he has made friends there. He spends much of his time running a small network of informants who work in German industry, especially armaments (Mercier has a particular interest in tank warfare), and the remainder of his hours tend to be spent at dinners, receptions, and parties, where the representatives of various nations continually seek advantage over each other — even those who are supposed to be allies. The colonel, a widower, never lacks female companionship for his diplomatic duties, either. That’s the background, but rather than a closely woven plot, the action is really a series of extended vignettes, which I thought tended to drag in the earlier sections. Things pick up when he sneaks into Bavaria to observe a German test of armored maneuverability in a forest — as might be expected if Germany were to invade France by way of the Ardennes in Belgium, as they did in 1914. (Not that Marshal Petain and his cronies on the French general staff are ever going to abandon their purely defensive strategy based on the Maginot Line.) Then Mercier becomes involved in spiriting two Old Bolshevik Russian-Jewish operatives out of Poland, just ahead of Stalin’s NKVD. And then there’s the turning of an anti-Hitler Nazi who has gone underground. There’s a lot of pretty good writing here. Not Le Carre, but pretty good.

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