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Monday, June 2, 2008

Spy Games

Furst delivers next chapter of international intrigue

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  Alan Furst is closing in on Upton Sinclair. Between 1940 and 1953, Sinclair, acclaimed author of The Jungle,created a series of 11 “World’s End” novels that captured much of the Western world’s political history in the first half of the 20th century.

  For 20 years now, Furst has been turning out his own series of novels filled with international intrigue. Furst’s books are set in Europe before and during World War II, and his latest effort, The Spies ofWarsaw (Random House), is the 10th novel in the series. Like its predecessors, Spies ofWarsaw is highly enjoyable, particularly in the author’s remarkable ability to evoke a vanished era.

  Though alike in bringing action to historical events, Sinclair’s and Furst’s series differ in two major respects: Furst’s total page output is probably half of Sinclair’s 7,000-plus, and he does not employ a continuing central character, like Sinclair’s Lanny Budd in the “World’s End” series. Also, Furst has not won a Pulitzer, as Sinclair did for Dragon’s Teeth; however, to my mind, he is just as deserving.

  Furst’s novels move forward chronologically, though with lurches back and forth. His previous entry, The Foreign Correspondent, was set among Italian migrs in Paris in 1938-39. As the title indicates, The Spies of Warsaw takes place in Poland, from the fall of 1937 through the spring of 1938.

  Jean-Franois Mercier, an army lieutenant colonel, is the military attach at the French embassy. Mercier, a minor aristocrat of decidedly democratic leanings, is also a minor spymaster and, on occasion, a spy.

  Mercier, a widower of three years with suave good looks, is like walking catnip to unattached ladies—and sometimes even the attached ones. But Mercier finds a permanent love interest in League of Nations lawyer Anna Szarbek. There is always a love interest in Furst’s novels, and Anna fits into the pattern of previous women in the series: not youthful, but not yet middle-age; not gorgeous, but highly attractive, with part of the attraction being intellectual. At the center of the novel is a slow erotic dance, Mercier around Anna, Anna around Mercier, as they fall into bed in a wagon-lit train to Belgrade.

  Spies does not have the dangerous intrigue of some of the earlier books; in this regard it is like its predecessor. Of course, in neither novel has the war begun yet. Spies is mostly content to tantalize us with the mood and tone of diplomacy, the dinners and social affairs where espionage is quietly enabled.

  Furst’s characters dwell in shadows—the shadows of what might be called “Furstland,” the twilight realm of desperate people in hiding or on the run. It’s a model that closely borders “Greeneland,” Graham Greene’s dim, dusty world of soured morality and languorous betrayal. Particularly in Spies, we feel the fear of the kleinmensch, the little man playing a dangerous game of spying.

  German engineer Edvard Uhl gets sucked into selling secrets to Mercier through his lust for a Polish “countess,” who, unbeknownst to him, is a prostitute working for Mercier. Uhl is there to show us what Mercier does as spymaster—and what people do to themselves.

  The author skillfully weaves in political and social information about the times, garnishing this with technical data about armaments and spy establishments as well as with quotidian details like the activities of a railway stationmaster or the sound of a steam-powered train as it traverses a bridge over a river.

  Here as elsewhere the typical Furstland atmosphere is indoors: dusk, that time of soft blue shadows, a low light burning and a radio quietly playing a dance tune in the next room. More often than not, it is gray and chilly outside, with drizzling rain or spitting snow.

  Spies demonstrates the missteps nations took in proceeding inexorably toward a war they knew was coming yet whose outlines they could not begin to imagine. France, especially, guided by the calcified military thinking of Marshal Philippe Ptain, made the giant misstep of clinging to a military strategy heavily based on the protection supposedly offered by the Maginot Line.

  Nothing could convince them that such thinking was completely wrongheaded—not even the information Mercier obtained through espionage that showed the Germans simply planned to ignore the line and plow through the forests with tanks (which the French insisted couldn’t be done). Ptain and his sycophants stubbornly refused to accept a reality that did not fit their theory.

  Funny, where have we heard that song before?