The shadow of war looms large over Europe ; bombs and bullets are yet to fly, but French and German operatives are locked in a game no less deadly. Moving between the diplomatic salons and back alleyways of Warsaw, Colonel Jean-Francois Mercier , a decorated hero of the previous world war, is drawn into a world of abduction and intrigue, and a passionate love affair with a Parisian lawyer of Polish descent.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
A very good read. I preferred Dark Star best of the three Furst books that I have read recently.