The spies of Warsaw : a novel

by Alan Furst

Paperback, 2008





New York : Random House, c2008.


A French aristocrat working as a military attache at the French embassy in Warsaw in 1937 tries to gather information for Poland and France, wondering what move Germany will make next. Romantic sparks fly between the French aristocrat's cousin and a Franco-Polish woman who works as a lawyer for The League of Nations, all against the backdrop of Hitler's gathering war.

User reviews

LibraryThing member DeltaQueen50
Author Alan Furst has written a number of excellent European espionage stories set during the years leading up to World War II, and The Spies of Warsaw is another outstanding contribution. Colonel Jean-Francois Mercier, as the new military attaché to the French embassy in Warsaw, in involved daily in political intrigue in this Polish city that is at the crossroads of Germany, Russia and Eastern Europe. Piecing together tidbits of information acquired from an informer, he comes to understand that Nazi Germany are drawing up plans to invade France, and these plans have no interest in the Maginot Line upon which France rests her security. Of course convincing his superiors that this is more than a deliberate mislead on the part of the Germans is actually much more difficult than actually acquiring the information. The powers-that-be consider France invincible from invasion due to both the Maginot Line and geography.

A small story but beautifully drawn and told. Suspense is built slowly, but the author never goes overboard, content to foreshadow the dark threat that is coming to Europe. The main character is a quiet yet patriotic man who does his job with intelligence and courage. Side stories shed light on what Warsaw was like during these years of 1937-1938.

Accurate period detail, rich characterization, and a taunt and compact plot have been blended together by this author to produce an atmospheric and compelling book.
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LibraryThing member readafew
The Spies of Warsaw was a well written and interesting book. However, in trying to summarize the plot, I've had a hard time. While the book was enjoyable, easy to read, and kept ones attention, the plot was rather meandering. Was is a spy novel? yes, in that the main character was technically a spy. Was it a political mystery? Not really, we already know what happens in the end. Was it a love story? No, there is a love interest, but that is only a useful prop. Was it a story of revenge? Nope. Was it a story of Espionage? Once again, No. As close as I can get is, it was a story about a French military attache assigned to Warsaw a couple years before WWII and how he lived his life and tried to do the best he could. Really this book was a collection of mini plot arcs. In spite of all that, I found it to be an engaging book, that really helps one get a feel for the time and place it was taking place.

This book takes place mostly in and around Warsaw before WWII, with some trips to a few other places, such as Paris, and Germany. We follow Mercier, the French attache to Warsaw who has recently been assigned there, as he goes about doing his job, both the public and private aspects. Great Story.
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LibraryThing member Periodista
This is it? I guess you really have to be into Nazi porn. The appeal of these Furst books must just be atmosphere. It's well written. The plot, such as it is, is tissue thin: a French major and spy chief stationed in Warsaw discovers the Germans are building and testing artillery that will easily overcome France's defenses. The major's discoveries are ignored, he gets his woman and so WW2--in Europe, that is--could have been avoided. That's it.

I've just been in Asia too long and know too much (and really not that much) about French imperial history in Asia to ever find a French military character a hero figure. And one aligned with the insatiable DeGaulle. What's one million Vietnamese starved to death in 1945 alone as long as the empire is saved? This book is taking place in the late 1930s--a decade of terrible famine in Vietnam, a brutal crackdown on a widespread rebellion, decimation of the VNQDD national party, slavery in rubber plantations, French colons sending postcards of piles of guillotined heads. I think anyone familiar with the French history in Africa would read it with the same eye-roll.

Moreover at times, our major thinks fleetingly of alternative postings in warmer climes. I think he had previously been in Beirut, the Levant. (It's an airport novel, the details slip away quickly.) But some of us then think of what the warmer climes under French rule were like. Ah, say, South Pacific islands under the French. Vietnamese plantation laborers, working off their head taxes for decades on end and their kids don't get any schooling either. That's the life, when the dark skins knew their place. As someone said about the Master and Commander books or movie, or that awful English Patient movie, you can *hint* that there's an alternative point of view

On the positive side is that you get a feel for the mix of nationalities and political allegiances in Warsaw at this time. Notably the Jewish Russian spies who turn sides when they're called home for the purge trials. You get little sense of the extreme politics of France of the period.
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LibraryThing member dougwood57
Great news has arrived for those fans of Alan Furst who thought he mailed in his last work, The Foreign Correspondent: A Novel. The master of the historical spy novel is back at the top of his game in The Spies of Warsaw. Furst centers his story in Warsaw, the scene of some his best writing and the return is triumphal. The typical Furst protagonist is the ordinary man of above-average principles, thrust by accident of history into the dangerous interstices of inter-war Europe. This time, however, our man is one Jean-Francois Mercier, decorated hero of the Great War and wounded veteran of the Polish victory in the 1920 Battle of Warsaw - the Miracle at the Vistula - and new military attaché at the French embassy and a professional spook.

Mercier runs an agent who works as engineer in an armaments company Germany, but who also develops a taste for Warsaw honey and promptly falls into the honey trap. By indirect route that leads to a one-sided vendetta against Mercier of which he is the unknowing target. Mercier falls in lust early in the book, but later finds himself fully in love while he continues to troll for secrets and potential agents. His work leads him into several adventures in which the risks of failure range from embarrassing to deadly.

Furst brilliantly recreates the atmosphere of pre-war days - the end of happiness and hope. Mercier's attempts for even a brief mental respite from the looming NAZI threat are futile; the reminders everywhere. His description of the formal dining room at a Warsaw party in the city's finest hotel puts the reader in the room: the "sheen of the damask tablecloth, the heavy silver, and the gold-rimmed china glowed in the light of a dozen candelabra".

Details to delight. A trip to Paris includes the now-obligatory Furstian visit to Brasserie Heininger and a peak at the infamous bullet hole in the mirror of Table 14. We learn that Mercier is a fan of Georges Simenon and Stendhal.

Mercier struggles to help France resist the NAZI's in the coming war that palpably hangs over Europe and every page in the book. As he learns, however, there are those in France who view Soviet Russia as the true enemy and Nazi Germany as potential allies. Moreover, intelligence that questions accepted wisdom, in this case of Marshal Petain and the ruling clique in the military, is seldom welcome. The books powerful ending leaves the reader angry and impotent. Highest recommendation.
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LibraryThing member marilynr
Excellent addition by Alan Furst with Mercier and his work with Polish Spies.
LibraryThing member kingsportlibrary
Pre World War II spy story set in dark surroundings with just too many characters. Slow development & predictible ending.
LibraryThing member pwoodford
I love Alan Furst's noir stories about WWII Europe and the men and women who did what they could to sabotage the Nazis, but this novel seemed formulaic. I particularly disliked the little historical lesson/wrap-up at the end. People who read these novels have a good knowledge of history, I believe, and would not be surprised to learn that Hitler invaded France, or that the French military men who saw it coming were ignored by complacent superiors.… (more)
LibraryThing member BGavin
I really enjoy Alan Furst and this one is among his best. A very low-key protagonist, not overly heroic, yet dedicated to doing the right thing. Very understated.
LibraryThing member kylenapoli
I have yet to dislike anything Furst has written, including the early stuff he has since disavowed. This one, however, seems to lack momentum. Perhaps that's appropriate for a plot that revolves around bureaucratic stasis, but as a result "Spies" does not rise to the top of my personal Furst rankings. Nevertheless, enjoyable, and I'm ready for the next one.… (more)
LibraryThing member johnleague
No one plays "What if?" better than Alan Furst.

What if the Wehrmacht high command had managed to assassinate Hitler in 1937 (Kingdom of Shadows)? What if the British had crippled shipping up the Danube to choke off Hitler's supply of Balkan oil (Blood of Victory)? Better than that, though, Furst wonders aloud how it could have been done. You know the outcome--Furst isn't Harry Turtledove--but you read on anyway, hoping against history for success and an early end to the Nazis.

In his latest, The Spies of Warsaw, Furst wonders what if the French military had taken seriously the potential for German attack through Belgium. The spectacular failure of the Maginot Line was clearly a failure of strategy and imagination, but Furst rightly damns it as a failure of arrogance and a determination to read only those parts of intelligence that fit within a preconceived construct of the world. (Sound familiar?)

In Colonel Mercier, we have a typically Furstian character. Patriotic but jaded, resourceful but wary, cognizant of the inevitability of war but bent on preventing (or fighting) the spread of fascism. Mercier is in a unique stage of life for a Furst character: he is a widower. This adds an autumnal quality to The Spies of Warsaw that is entirely appropriate.

My one complaint is that I wish the book had been longer. One cannot expect the length of Blood of Victory or Dark Star (which I just started reading) from Furst every time out, and I realize that the book ends in the most appropriate place--after its climax, everything that follows until June 1940 (when Germany invades France) is inevitable. But the epilogue describing de Gaulle's flight to resistance and Petain's acquiescence seemed on first reading like short shrift. It was distasteful, but that might be what Furst was going for here.
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LibraryThing member ZachMontana
An enjoyable quick read with nice development of places and feeling of the time.
LibraryThing member neddludd
Like all Furst books, this is very rich in period details. The dialogue is excellent, and there are moral choices to be made (even by spies).
LibraryThing member MargaSE
A great favourite,his books are great mood pieces of Europe at the start of WWII
LibraryThing member jvega210
Let me start by saying I read this as a book club selection, not as an avid history buff. The main character of the novel is the possiblity of war. While Mercier's character is well developed, other characters were not as well developed. Many of the story lines that you expect to go somewhere, do not (the woman in the shower, his cousin Albertine, Voss' fate!!). After you do start to associate with Mercier, the book wraps up the remainder of his life in four sentences.

As someone who is not well versed in WWII history, I did struggle to understand the significance of several situations. I felt I had to have a laptop with the internet when reading the book. He does use random detail that was intriguing but borderline useless. For instance, his noting that Mercier sat in a chair in the hotel lobby with a pillar on one side and a potted palm on the other.

The end seemed anticlimatic, but the book seemed to be want to read as a non-fiction, rather than have the plot twists and turns of a fiction.
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LibraryThing member saskreader
I don't generally read spy novels, but this one seemed intriguing, and I'm glad I read it. It was a quick read populated with interesting characters, and the mood and setting of Europe on the brink of WWII was superbly captured. This book had so many detailed scene descriptions, I almost felt like I was watching a movie, and perhaps this would, in fact, make a good movie.… (more)
LibraryThing member John
Jean-Francois Mercier is the French military attaché in the Embassy in Warsaw when the novel opens in 1937 and continues on through 1939. Germany is re-arming, tensions in Europe are increasing, arms manufacturers are doing a booming business, Poland is nervous about both Germany and the predations of the USSR, France is desperate to know German military plans for war in the west, the French General Staff is divided between those who think the Maginot line will hold and those who think strategy has to break out into new directions, the Gestapo and the SD are increasingly active in seeking out and suppressing any opposition, bureaucracies are riven by jealousies and careerists, life is good for the wealthy and a struggle for others, Jews who can see the future unfolding are fleeing if they can, anti-semitism is becoming more and more apparent in German towns and villages, first class train travel in sleeper cars is opulent and dining cars offer fine fare….all of this is background for Furst’s novel as Mercier recruits and manages German intelligence contacts, deals with the Poles, saves defecting Soviet spies, spies on the Germans, and falls in love. Another of Furst’s novels with good characters, good pace, good plot, wonderful atmosphere both physical and psychological.… (more)
LibraryThing member Gary10
I have no idea how accurate this account of spies in Poland leading up to World War II is, but it is convincing. The author writes authoritatively and seems to know what he is talking about. There is enough detail to hold the interest of the non specialist. The main character is also likeable and soon you care about him.
LibraryThing member BillPilgrim
Another spy novel from Furst, that I got at the Adriance Library book sale in June. It takes place in 1937. A French military attache in Warsaw, Colonel Mercier, is involved in espionage against Germany. His contact from a German company that manufactures tanks gets spooked on the train back to his home, and gives himself away. When the Germans try to abduct him on his next trip to Warsaw, Mercier foils the attempt. But, now he must try to find another way to get information about a German military exercise planned for a wooded area in Germany. Also, he tries to find a way to get information about the German military planning against France. He gets it, but his information is not believed.

A very good read. I preferred Dark Star best of the three Furst books that I have read recently.
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LibraryThing member sodarne
Not the best Alan Furst
LibraryThing member freelancer_frank
This is a book about the shadows of war. The figure of Le Carre looms large over it. Furst has Le Carre's way with character, situation and location, but his interest is more in the oblique and uncertain. The book suffers as a consequence. Because so little is revealed the story feels like there is little at stake. This may well be part of the point but it does not really make for an especially gripping read. It feels realistic and life-like but has all the faults of that approach too.… (more)
LibraryThing member dmmjlllt
Very well-written, but I'd have a hard time telling you what on earth the plot of the thing was, unless it's the love story.
LibraryThing member Michaenite
Few writers can capture the disturbing transition of Europe from the 1930s to the 1940s. Romance, old traditions, old alliances and the social order were all uprooted by the coming of the war. The uneasy peace after the first world war resulted in an even greater horror. The futile efforts of Polish, Russian and French spies to halt the Nazi menace form the plot of this lively and entertaining novel. The excellent character development of the protagonist and his steady and noble work allow the reader to care about him and his times. The work is a special treat on cd because the reader is so talented.… (more)
LibraryThing member MickyFine
Jean-François Mercier is the military attaché at the French embassy in Poland. But in the Europe of 1937, increasingly aware of Hitler and the Nazis in Germany, Mercier's role is less that of paper pusher and attender of political soirées and more of a spy. In a dangerous game of outwitting the enemy, Mercier must constantly watch his step, and his back, as he does his best to strengthen his country's position in the forthcoming, and inevitable, war.

This novel was a bit of a mixed bag. Furst is brilliant at evoking late 1930s Warsaw, and Europe more generally. He deftly crafts small scenes between characters that are tiny illuminations into these individuals and to the subtleties that made up the spy game in the late 1930s. But in terms of an overarching plot, the novel didn't always hold together. This wasn't necessarily a bad thing as Mercier was an interesting character to follow but on occasions I wasn't quite sure where the novel was going. And then I found myself anxious towards the end of the novel because the resolution of one of the larger conflicts had not felt like a real resolution, leaving me to await the other shoe which never arrived. Not bad if you enjoy pre-war spy novels, but there are more satisfying spy novels out there
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LibraryThing member ShellyS
Though not one of Furst's best, this is a solid tale of spying in Poland at the brink of the Second World War. Col. Jean-Francois Mercier, a hero during the previous war, in his role as military attache in the French embassy in Warsaw, is tasked with discovering German activities as pertain to a possible invasion of France. From cocktail parties where things that are said merely hint at things not said to cultivating workers at German factories to spy on their bosses, Mercier is a man who spends most of his days in the shadows. A widower with grown daughters, he's also considered one of the more eligible bachelors until he meets League of Nations lawyer Anna Szarbek who is living with a Russian journalist in Warsaw.

The book is mostly episodic with no overall plot save the real life activities of Nazi Germany. The missions Mercier undertakes are thrilling in the way of true life spying, full of danger and intrigue without the chase scenes and explosions found in the more James Bond type fantasies of today's media. It's the realism against the painstakingly researched backdrop of history that makes Furst's books so good. If only there had been more plot to go with this one.
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LibraryThing member christinejoseph
1930 Poland Pre WWII
sets the scene —
French/Brits/German/Russian — everyone spying on everyone — like Today

War is coming to Europe. French and German intelligence operatives are locked in a life-and-death struggle on the espionage battlefield. At the French embassy, the new military attache, Colonel Jean-Francois Mercier, a decorated hero of the 1914 war, is drawn into a world of abduction, betrayal, and intrigue in the diplomatic salons and back alleys of Warsaw. At the same time, the handsome aristocrat finds himself in a passionate love affair with a Parisian woman of Polish heritage, a lawyer for the League of Nations.… (more)



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