If there are any lingering doubts that Alan Furst is our premiere writer of historical spy fiction, his 10th novel, The Spies of Warsaw, will put them to rest. No one sets the tone of the dangerous shadows and the consequences of misjudgment quite like Furst – and he also keeps the reader guessing about who is trustworthy and who isn't, which makes for a highly entertaining read.
The novel opens in the fall of 1937, when the assembly of the next great war machine from Germany is resonating throughout Europe. There can be no doubt that war is coming. Enter our hero, a military attache from the French embassy, Col. Jean-Francois Mercier, suave and dapper, a decorated hero of World War I with the requisite amount of courage and testosterone.
As if an imminent war weren't enough to keep Mercier busy, he is in love with a Parisian woman of Polish heritage, Anna, who is a lawyer for the League of Nations. Matters get sticky when one of his lower-level spies becomes convinced the Gestapo is on to him. This is when Furst really kicks his novel into gear, casting suspicion on every character Mercier has to deal with. He spares us no mischievous nuance in the persona of people such as the Russian defectors Viktor and Malka Rozen, Dr. Lapp, a senior German officer in Warsaw, or the vicious Maj. August Voss of SS counterintelligence.
If peril cast an aroma, its miasma would hover over each page of The Spies of Warsaw. Furst is a master at setting, and his depiction of Warsaw and the surrounding Polish countryside is rife with the grim spectacle of a nation teetering on war. Perhaps this is why the few moments that Col. Mercier can manage with his lover, Anna, seem both so tender and erotically charged. You may never take a train ride again without wondering who the mysterious character is in the seat next to you.
Michael Lee is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.