THE SPIES OF WARSAW
By Alan Furst
Random House, 266 pages, $25
IT’S 1937, AND Lt. Col. Jean-François Mercier is the French military attaché in Warsaw. A minor nobleman and former cavalry officer, he’s rather restive in his largely desk-bound assignment—as one would expect from a man decorated with the Croix de Guerre, a passing acquaintance of Charles de Gaulle. De Gaulle is taller, but otherwise not a patch on Mercier. “He had fair skin, pale, and refined features, all of which made him seem younger than he was, though these proportions, classic in the French aristocrat, were somehow contradicted by very deep, very thoughtful, gray-green eyes. Nonetheless, he was what he was, with the relaxed confidence of the breed and, when he smiled, a touch of the insouciant view of the world common to the southern half of France.” Insouciant enough, that is, to prefer Simenon to Stendhal, and intelligent enough to enjoy both.
An old war wound causes Mercier to limp. Nevertheless, he’s able to hold his own on the tennis court at doubles. More to the point, he’s capable of slipping into the Black Forest to spy on German tank maneuvers. Although a widower and the father of two grown daughters, he’s only 46. For all his courtliness and sense of duty, he remains, let us say, as manly a man when he takes his uniform off as when he keeps it on. He is, after all, a Frenchman—50 million of whom can’t be wrong (well, other than about the Maginot Line).
Even if Mercier weren’t French, he’d still be an Alan Furst hero, which basically amounts to the same thing.
The heroes of Mr. Furst’s preposterously readable espionage novels of the entre-deux-guerres could form a rump League of Nations—Soviet and Italian journalists, a Bulgarian NKVD agent, a Dutch sea captain, a Hungarian businessman, a Polish officer. At heart, though, they’re all of them as French as Mercier: lovers of good wine, good food, good women and, certainement, a good cause. “Mercier felt the Parisian mystique take hold of his heart: a sudden nameless ecstasy in the damp air—air scented by black tobacco and fried potatoes and charged with the restless melancholy of the city at the end of its day.” Listen closely, and behind that description you can almost hear the Hot Club of Paris. Look closely, and you can almost see the marvelously atmospheric Julien Duvivier or Marcel Carné films of the period, like Pépé le Moko or Quai des brumes.
There’s action in Mr. Furst’s novels, of course—a tryst here, an interrogation there—but relatively little plot development. True, Night Soldiers (1988), Dark Star (1991) and The Polish Officer (1995), the first three of the 10 novels Mr. Furst has set during the ’30s and World War II, were almost muscle-bound with intrigue. But then he realized what made his books special were mood and setting. He could rely on readers’ knowledge of the actual history to provide much of the development his narrative needs. So now he gives us a train of vignettes and episodes separated by well-oiled elisions. (A most handsomely appointed train: “The dining car, each table lit by candles, was even more romantic than [Mercier’s] compartment—well-dressed couples and foursomes gathered over white tablecloths, conversation low and intimate, the rhythmic beat of wheels on rails perfecting a luxuriant atmosphere of suspended time.”)
Rather than Eric Ambler thrillers or Graham Greene entertainments, the comparisons Mr. Furst’s novels most often draw, they might more accurately be seen as extended series of Talk of the Town pieces. There’s the same soupçon of irony, the expert deployment of detail and, above all, a thick helping of knowingness—only with military secrets, machine pistols and Gestapo agents instead of celebrity quirks or outer-borough oddities.
Like a good Talk piece, Mr. Furst’s novels are suave, expert and very nearly weightless (which is both a compliment and not). The Spies of Warsaw is no exception. It almost misses the point to go into particulars. There’s a beautiful Franco-Polish lawyer. A disaffected former Nazi is tracked down in Czechoslovakia. A pair of Soviet spies flee Stalin’s purges. And so on.
These are merely ingredients, though, and the soufflé Mr. Furst has cooked up is what matters. “The evening of the twenty-ninth found [Mercier] stretched out on the chaise longue in the study, finishing The Red and the Black, a swing band on the radio, a fire in the fireplace, a brandy at his side. The cook had left earlier.” Of course she had. Who needs a cook with Alan Furst wielding his whisk and dagger?
Mark Feeney, an arts writer for The Boston Globe, was awarded the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.