The Spies of Warsaw

Written by Alan Furst
Review by Geoffrey Harfield

This is a difficult to follow but fascinating study of French intelligence-gathering in Central Europe, prior to World War II. Alan Furst is a master of accurate research. Indeed, that mastery makes the book difficult to follow. Too many names and locations in an unfamiliar language with obscure (to the English at least) spelling, affect the continuity of a read. Too many Zs make it difficult to remember how and when a character or location has appeared.

This is not an easy read. After eight pages of a scene setting preamble and a subsidiary character’s exploits, we at last meet the main character, Colonel Jean-François Mercier. A decorated hero of World War I, he then moves by express train between embassies and hideouts in Paris and central Europe gathering information on Nazi rearmament. He is drawn into a world of abduction, betrayal and intrigue in the salons and back alleys of Warsaw. He enjoys a passionate affair with a lawyer for the League of Nations, a Parisian woman of Polish heritage. Sometimes acerbic, the author paints Mercier’s sense of fear and his characters’ innermost feelings. Fascinating descriptions of restaurants, flats, food, clothes, weather and landscape enrich the novel as Mercier ricochets between lovers and handlers. But he becomes too involved with his informants, too sensitive to their needs, too generous. With persistence, Mercier finds success. He obtains maps of Nazi plans to invade France through the Ardennes. He has technical details of the Panzer tanks to be used—ground clearance, power, fuel consumption, etc.

Impressing his seniors, he receives promotion and a chance to move back to Paris with his Polish lover. What could go wrong now?