In Alan Furst’s deliciously atmospheric The Spies of Warsaw, Colonel Jean-François Mercier de Boutillon is working for the Warsaw branch of the French intelligence service. 1937 is a bad year for a lot of people in Eastern Europe, and many of them cross Mercier’s path: Russian émigrés, German informants, Polish Jews, Romanian fugitives. Mercier served in the first World War, and he has no desire ever to see another. Still, he knows, as his whole intelligence community knows, that Hitler’s regime is arming for war, and that only extremely sharp intelligence and swift action can avert it. There can be no mistakes. The fact that we, the readers, know that war could not be averted and came despite all these efforts doesn’t make any difference to the suspense of this wonderful spy novel. It only adds a melancholy tinge of foreshadowing to each operation.
Alan Furst’s novels are always meticulously researched, and The Spies of Warsaw is no exception. All his spy novels take place during or just before the second World War, which is a time I’m very familiar with, and I’ve never caught even one thing that seemed out of place or less than perfectly authentic. One thing I love about his books is that they push me beyond my “comfort zone” of Britain, France, and Germany. He writes about Hungary, Poland, Spain, Italy, Bulgaria — countries where the politics, the spycraft, and the outcome of the war are not so cut-and-dried.
And they are exquisitely written. Furst loves to catch spies being human beings, and the rest of the human race being themselves. Meals are tender moments. Moonlight on snow is something to be savored. You can smell the smoke of the Gitanes in the cafés, hear the music playing in the nightclubs, taste the aromatic frites piled by the omelette aux fines herbes. Every detail is right, and then someone whispers a secret he shouldn’t know, and the whole intricate story begins again.
With one exception, these novels are stand-alones (The World at Night and Red Gold are linked together with the same main character), so you can pick up any one of them and instantly feel yourself transported to another place and time. These novels go above and beyond the espionage genre; they are literary, gorgeous, a true pleasure.