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Like all of its predecessors, The Spies of Warsaw (Random House, U.S. publication date June 3, 2008), Alan Furst’s tenth novel in the genre he calls “historical espionage” is set on the Continent either on the eve of, or in the early days of, the Second World War.

It is a profoundly satisfying spy story in which nothing of moment happens: Jean-François Mercier de Boutillon, a French military attaché based in Warsaw, in 1937 and 1938 runs a series of operations against Germany, uncovering clues to the military techniques and plans that will crush his country in May of 1940. The reader learns what he almost certainly knew before opening the book, which is that the Germans are experimenting with massed tanks coordinated with aircraft, and are practicing moving armor through forests. What Mercier uncovers will be ignored, another thing we know before we open the book, so the recurring pleasures provided by Furst’s extremely satisfying fictions are in one sense something of a puzzle.

The historical espionage genre necessarily sacrifices much of the suspense a contemporary setting creates: after all, we know who won the Second World War. Furst’s novels chronicle attempts to avert the war, or inform the Western Allies of the military threat the Nazis pose, thus sacrificing more suspense, because we know that the Allies will be catastrophically surprised in the Battle of France, just as Stalin was later catastrophically surprised by the invasion of the Soviet Union.

If that weren’t risky enough, none of Furst’s protagonists have been killed in his previous books, and his readers have no reason to expect any change in the rules. Over the course of ten novels, only in the first two do Furst’s spies undergo political or psychological revelations, and when they do, it is about the nature of Stalinism, so the novels sacrifice another possible pleasure.
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Dave B
July 29th, 2008
2:07 AM
I always enjoy Mr Furst's books, but I get the impression, I'm not sure why, that he actively dislikes British people.

malty
July 24th, 2008
10:07 PM
Looking forward to the release, I have read all of his novels to date, first three, couldn't put them down. He is a modern Simenon with deeper, darker plot, knowing the background history alters my enjoyment not one jot. Modern classics.

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