I will possibly have more to say about this superb spy thriller after I have watched the final TV episode some time next week. I intend to watch the two episodes straight through as I believe that will be fairer to the adaptation of the novel, and I might forget the plot with a week interval between episodes.
The Spies of Warsaw, set in 1937, was an even better book than Spies of the Balkans, it had a bit more history, an interesting main character in Mercier and plenty of tension. Alan Furst cleverly blends real life events and personalities with his fictional characters. The narrative style is episodic but that does not jar because of the packed content in those episodes. The author switches third person perspectives occasionally from the French military attache, the dashing aristocratic widower Colonel Mercier, to the German engineer Edvard Uhl, a secret agent, or the vindictive SD Major August Voss, but the tension never flags.
‘Evil bastards, Jean-Francois, they’ve got their whole country in prison. I have friends who are Jews, a couple , who fled Frankfurt with their clothes on their backs. No doubts great threats to the government: cellists, both of them. Did you know that, by German law, persons of more than twenty-five per cent non-Aryan blood are forbidden to play Beethoven, Mozart, Bach or any other Aryan composer?’
The reader learns all about the duties of Jean-Francois Mercier, and the reality that military attache really means a “spy”, working for the French Deuxieme Bureau. We accompany him to smart embassy dinners, to social events and on his dangerous investigative activities. He deals with both German secret agents, the Abwehr [German Military Intelligence] and the anti-Nazi ex-Nazis from Otto Strasser’s organisation, the survivors of Hitler’s purge on the Night of the Long Knives in 1934. He helps Russian NKVD operatives avoid the dreaded trip back to Moscow, and “nine grams”. [The weight of a bullet is slang for execution.] He checks fortifications on the Polish-German border, and tank exercises in the Black Forest.
‘So Marshal Petain, the hero of Verdun, much honoured, idolized, even, has persuaded himself he is omniscient. In a recent pamphlet, he wrote “The Ardennes forest is impenetrable; and if the Germans were imprudent enough to get entangled in it, we should seize them as they came out!”‘
The reader learns about Mercier’s teenage years, his relationships with women, and especially his romance with intriguing Anna Szarbek, a lawyer with the League of Nations. And on top of all the personal details we learn about the articles and books written on tank tactics by Basil Liddell-Hart, and Charles De Gaulle. These are almost totally ignored by the French and British General Staffs, but their ideas are eagerly adopted by German officers including Heinz Guderian, and Erwin Rommel with devastating effect in the Blitzkreigs of 1939 [Poland] and 1940 [France]. This is just the sort of book that should be read by young people starting on their GCSE History of the Second World War course at 15 or 16, because it gives you a lot of facts in an easily digestible form alongside, both an exciting spy story and a love story. It makes history interesting, and as a result I am becoming a bit of an addict for Alan Furst’s writing. Although of course as well as history you get the tension and excitement of spying and other activities.
Then they kissed for a while, the tender kind, touch and part-until she raised her arms so he could take her sweater off. Small breasts in a lacy black bra. For a day at the Cracow office?
Madame Dupin, you told.