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Novel set in Warsaw (“..a really polished piece of writing..”)

5th May 2015

Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst, novel set in Warsaw.

IMG_0668At 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.

Now, I don’t like spy novels but, because my nearest and dearest is a great devotee of the genre, I have tried many times to broach some of the best of spy fiction, only to throw them away several chapters in – too many characters, too convoluted a plot, don’t understand all the spy stuff anyway. But, I have to say that this is different. 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’.

All in all, honesty compels me to say that Spies of Warsaw hasn’t totally converted me to spy fiction but I might well hunt out one or two more of Furst’s novels. This one was thoroughly enjoyable.

Ellen for the Tripfiction Team.

If you like Spies of Warsaw, then let us suggest News from Berlin by Otto de Kat, set in Berlin and Berne.

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  1. User: aditi3991

    Posted on: 06/05/2015 at 12:47 pm

    The cover picture of the book is really beautiful, wonderful review Ellen 🙂