Intrigue before WWII

Special to The Times

Alan FURST writes books the way Frederic Chopin composed music; in bulk, with an apparent ease that belies great craftsmanship. Like Chopin, Furst has a deft ability to use the smallest changes in context to convey the profoundest of emotions.

And, like Chopin, Furst is a Romantic. Regardless of their gender or nationalities, his characters share one immutable trait: a heroic belief in the transformative power of love, whether for a nation, an ideal or another human being.

“The Spies of Warsaw” is Furst’s 10th novel. Like the others, it involves the work of European spies in the 1930s and ‘40s. Few writers tread such a narrow path so often. Fewer still do it without repeating themselves. Furst’s genius is to revisit the same era and character types while making each journey new and fascinating.

A sort of prequel to the 1995 book “The Polish Officer,” about the Polish resistance to Nazi occupation, the new novel involves the months before the war, when the future was unknown. The year is 1937. Germany secretly prepares to invade Poland while officially disavowing any intention to do so.


Col. Jean-Francois Mercier, a decorated World War I veteran, becomes the French Embassy’s new military attache. Mercier’s day job (handling routine diplomatic work) and his nightly social obligations (attending various dinners and soirees in and around the Polish capital) provide the perfect cover for his real task: stealing German war plans.

Noble in lineage and character, Mercier is a man of the world, battered by war wounds and life experience, but unbowed. Were he alive, Jean Gabin would play him in the film. Blessed with a poet’s sense of irony and a boxer’s knack for slipping punches, Mercier is the classic Furst hero: tough as nails yet vulnerable, a courageous man who still gets scared and lonely. A widower, Mercier is drawn to the mysterious Anna Szarbek, a beautiful French lawyer of Polish parentage with uncertain loyalties and unclear ambitions. For Mercier, steeped in the world of false identities and deceptions, the authentic is dangerous. Real feelings compromise the spy’s mission, and heartfelt emotions make the spy vulnerable to lowering his guard, often with fatal consequences.

In the days before satellites, intelligence gathering relied to a greater degree on “human assets” -- real people risking life and limb to discover what paid informants could not be relied on to convey. Furst’s grasp of the technical aspects and risks of espionage during that time is remarkable. He doesn’t so much describe Mercier’s equipment, transportation or logistical problems as channel them.

Whether it is a shootout with border guards or the difference between being sapped with a riding crop versus the butt of a Luger, Furst’s attention to detail is remarkable. Mercier’s dangerous missions are harrowing because Furst describes them with a reporter’s devotion to accuracy.

And his descriptive gifts are not limited to espionage.

“Beneath crystal chandeliers, a long table was set for thirty; the sheen of the damask tablecloth, the heavy silver, and the gold-rimmed china glowed in the light of a dozen candelabra.” Cocktail parties and sexual liaisons are captured with a truth that suggests he has experienced both and enjoyed them too.

Ultimately, it is Furst’s understanding of human nature that makes his stories so wonderful. Nazi spies seek revenge on Mercier, not for patriotic reasons or national animus, but because he made them look bad to their superiors. Intelligence and human lives are lost because of greed, caprice or sheer stupidity. Even when faithful spies do their job, the truth they die to uncover is too often ignored. Mercier’s challenge is not simply to avoid being killed by the Germans, it is to convince his French bosses that the threat they face is real. Eager to believe Germany’s pacifistic statements, history notwithstanding, these craven, cowardly men ignore their own intelligence services, preferring instead to hope for the best. None are so blind as those who refuse to see. It is especially tragic when they are the ones in charge.

The publisher describes the author as “the master of the historical spy novel.” The description is true but deprives “The Spies of Warsaw” of its literary merit. Though set in a specific place and time, Furst’s books are like Chopin’s nocturnes: timeless, transcendent, universal. One does not so much read them as fall under their spell and to fall in love with those Romantic impulses that compel men and women to act beyond their self-interests.


Jonathan Shapiro, a former federal prosecutor and adjunct law professor, writes and produces TV shows, including, most recently, the NBC police procedural “Life.”