The Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst

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The Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst

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Category: Thrillers
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A tense, exciting pre-war spy thriller that now boasts a TV series, bringing author Alan Furst an increased following, and deservedly so.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368 Date: January 2013
Publisher: Phoenix
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1780222202

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The reluctant, recently widowed Lieutenant Colonel Jean-Francois Mercier is military attaché at the French embassy in the Warsaw of 1937. Decorated during World War I, Mercier would rather be a field officer than attend endless receptions, parties and debriefing sessions necessary for his unofficial role, handling citizens who are encouraged or coerced to work against the interests of other states. He watches whilst Poland is squeezed between the Nazis on one side and the increasing profile of Stalin and Russia on the other, convinced that war will not only be inevitable, but soon. However, no one will listen to him as he gathers evidence and protects those he can from the onslaught to follow.

Alan Furst is an accomplished and prolific thriller writer with 16 books to his credit, the last 12 all being set before or during the war and featuring eastern bloc espionage. Although each is a stand-alone novel, there are links as certain characters are re-encountered. E.g. Vyborg, Mercier's colleague, also pops up in The Polish Officer and Dark Star whereas Mercier's Parisian haunt, Brasserie Heiniger, appears in every novel, complete with that bullet hole.

Where the story's concerned, although set between 1937 and 1940 replete a sinister atmosphere dripping with signs of Hitler's ascendancy, the espionage and accompanying complications take centre stage. In fact, in that respect it's reminiscent (in style and era) of David Downing and his Station spy series following John Russell, except perhaps that Russell is a journalist going it alone whereas Mercier has department behind him, for all the good he feels they do.

The story and our emotions revolve around Mercier, a man thrown into a role he doesn't want whilst he struggles with bereavement and issues. He's a professional but we still empathise with his feelings of awkwardness and futility as he tries to put on a professional front during society gatherings. Not everyone is as well fleshed out as our dashing cavalry officer, but the important people are. Although at times I felt that the certain SS officer person wishing to make Mercier's life harder than any cocktail party seems a bit 'central casting'. However, the rant scenes are wonderful and make his existence worthwhile as well as ensuring we never quite know when their paths will next collide.

The suspense is shrewdly layered. The language is matter of fact, enabling the set pieces to keep our nerves on the edge of anticipation and our posteriors on the edge of our seats. I'm sure it must have been moments like Mercier spying on the forest glade Nazi tank trials, his foray onto German soil (literally) and tank-designer-cum-spy Uhl's paranoia as November 15th approaches (and is cleverly counted down) that influenced the TV production company.

For all its excitement and heart-stopping moments it's a fairly light read in the world of spy novels. Sorry - that sounds disparaging. What I mean is there aren't endless characters speaking cryptically with twists we need to back track in order to understand. The author has allowed us to hurtle through at the speed of our racing pulses missing nothing and enjoying the journey. The resulting afterglow is then enriched by knowing Alan Furst's next book is due out June 2013.

If this appeals to you, then there's that whole back catalogue to enjoy, starting, perhaps with The Foreign Correspondent.

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