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Alan Furst: The Spies of Warsaw

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Aug 25, 2013
Category: Fiction

The “spy” is “an ordinary-looking man, who led a rather ordinary life” — he’s a mid-level engineer at a German ironworks, married, with three children. But as he takes the train to Warsaw in the autumn of 1937, his leather satchel contains some engineering diagrams. Once in Warsaw, he’ll give them to his contact.

But first Edvard Uhl will spend the night with Countess Sczelenska.

He’d met her a year ago, in the small city where he lived with his family. She told a charming story of real estate troubles and financial reversals. He was sympathetic. Ten days later, in Warsaw, they were lovers.

Of course it turned out that she had a “cousin” who was seeing a Frenchman, and the Frenchman had a budget for “industrial experts.” Here was a chance for Uhl to make some extra money — and help the Countess with the rent.

You were, perhaps, waiting to hear the noble reason why this modest, dull man became a spy?

The first reason that Alan Furst is the master of World War II espionage fiction is that he has a firm grasp on what actually motivates people. Which is, in times of crisis, not profound solidarity with a large cause. More often, it’s very urgent and primal stuff. Pornography and prostitution among the lower orders, unlikely romance among the elite.

So a large driving force of “The Spies of Warsaw” [To order the paperback from Amazon.com, click here. To order the Kindle edition, click here.] is sex — not a great surprise for those of us who devour Furst’s novels (My favorite, so far, is The Foreign Correspondent), but a certain revelation to readers who are used to Harrison Ford heroes and villains in black hats. In “The Spies of Warsaw,” Edvard Uhl isn’t the only one with an inflamed libido. His spymaster, the widowed French military attaché Jean-François Mercier, goes to play tennis at the home of titled friends — and soon finds himself joined in the shower by his hostess, a real princess. Later, Mercier will meet a lawyer who’s living with a writer, and they… but you get the idea.

And then there’s the historical aspect of Furst’s novels. Many writers love France; Furst has internalized it. And although I’d bet he has a list of great Paris restaurants, his deepest knowledge is the run-up to World War II and the first few years of the war. Smart move — that’s the period when Europeans had to make the most important choices of their lives.

The genius of this novel is that small people have large effects. Edvard Uhl is a pawn, a minor player. But it turns out that he might be useful in a project of immense importance for the French — figuring out where Hitler’s tanks will attack France. That, in turn, makes Mercier far more high-profile than his title would suggest. And so, at various points in this exactingly plotted novel, the social encounters and minor deceptions do give way to men with guns. The good news: They don’t pepper the pages with bullets.

Throughout, Furst tosses off such lovely throwaways you might actually want to mark the margins. Americans tend to think Paris is everything; for the French of Mercier’s caste, “the Paris apartment” was a “tiresome necessity,” as their real lives happened in country estates. “Nine grams” means, for Russians in the ’30, execution — that’s the weight of a revolver bullet. And, almost subliminally, you’ll learn a lot about tank warfare and strategy.

Most of all, I cherish the people in “Spies of Warsaw.” Yes, the mission is to acquire German invasion plans, but the spies and their foils have other priorities as well. They stop for meals. They banter. They rearrange travel plans so they can spend the night with their lovers. They live, in short, like real people — with the small difference that each of them has a role in keeping Hitler from conquering all of Europe.

Alan Furst never once suggests any of this is metaphorical.