Alan Furst, “The Spies of Warsaw”

So maybe it’s not a formula. Maybe it’s a recipe, which implies, to me at least (cook rather than chemist), more latitude. Ingredients include likable melancholy hero, redoubtable Nazi villain(s), a modest dose of spycraft, several discreet but circumstantial sex scenes, lousy Central European weather, and a scene at the Brasserie Heininger. It’s time to drop the last — kind of like the sun-dried tomatoes of spy fiction, a good idea for a while but we’ve seen enough. Now Furst has to produce so much exposition to get his characters in position at the Brasserie (to see the bullet-hole in the mirror from a gun battle many books back) that it’s tiresome.

He writes well, and atmosphere’s always been the strong suit. I can never tell from the title or the cover if I’ve read any given volume; covers tend to feature fog and titles to include dark or shadows. Easy enough to confuse. In this go-round the hero, Jean-Francois Mercier, is an aristocratic WWI veteran whose old leg wound requires him to carry an ebony stick with which in one scene he cracks a thug across the face. Nice: the accessory that provides both vulnerability and defense. Mercier is stationed in Warsaw and the McGuffin, if I followed the plot, is access to the German invasion plans for France. (We’re in 1937-8.) The part I remember best, though, is the section set in his ancestral house in rural France, all cool damp winter mist and well-trained hunting dogs.

Which is not really as it should be. Pleasant as it was to spend mental time in Furstworld, I was primed for a little more suspense and action. The ebony stick got deployed only in a subplot involving some resentful Nazi underlings — a subplot that didn’t seem ever to resolve. The height of tension in the main spying plot point of the novel was a series of tense border crossings.  OK, the narrator gets anxious when the mean kontrol guy with the German shepherd thumbs his counterfeit documents and examines the valise with the false bottom, but it’s not exactly nail-biting, is it?

Furst also signals a sequel involving Mercier and his Polish girlfriend, much the way Thomas Perry signals a sequel in Runner.  Is this now required of thrillers?

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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One Response to Alan Furst, “The Spies of Warsaw”

  1. Pingback: Alan Furst, “Spies of the Balkans” « Book Group of One

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