The Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst (2008)

Furst has written 14 spy novels set in or around Eastern Europe in the late 1930s when the clouds of war were gathering over the continent. The last seven or so have appeared at nice regular two-year intervals, conform to a nice predictable formula and his readers can look forward to the usual predictable pleasures.

Hero There’ll be a central male protagonist – as the novels have gone by these have tended to become steadily posher, so this one is Jean-François Mercier de Boutillon, 46, whose ancient family long ago lost their noble title and vast lands, and so is now plain Colonel Mercier. Mercier fought and was wounded in the Great War, and then in the 1920 Russian invasion of Poland, alongside the rather better-known de Gaulle. He was given a medal by the Polish government and partly because of that has ended up serving as French military attaché in Warsaw. He is tall, dark and handsome, walks with a slight limp from a war wound, because of which he sometimes uses an elegant silver-topped cane – but he nurses a secret sorrow: his beautiful wife, Annemarie, died suddenly three years earlier of influenza (p.55). Luckily his height, good looks, aristocratic bearing and independent means have kept in a regular supply of young lovelies to console him. His daughter, Gabrielle, thinks he is irresistible (p.190).

Sex The male protagonist usually has an easygoing way with women and enjoys soft porn sex with at least one round-bottomed young lady during the course of the book. For example, after a tennis match at the country house of Polish aristocrat Prince Kazimierz, Mercier is in the shower when the door to the bathroom opens and the lovely Princess Antoniwa enters, lets her robe slip to the floor, before stepping into the steamy shower to join him. You can almost hear Je t’aime playing on the movie soundtrack as they enjoy literally steamy sex. Later, we are treated to a description of his initiation into the joys of mutual masturbation by an older cousin, Albertine, when he was a teenager (pp.121-124).

High society Prince Kazimierz. Princess Antoniwa. Country houses. Mercier’s own upbringing at boarding school, the huge family apartment in the snobby 7th arrondissement of Paris. Part of Mercier’s job is to attend cocktail parties given by the various embassies, meeting and remeeting the beau monde of Warsaw. ‘Daaahling, have another one of these simply delicious canapés.’

Espionage One of Mercier’s jobs is managing ‘agents’. The one who features in this book is a shabby German businessman, Edvard Uhl, who works in the giant Krupps arms manufacturers. He was picked up by one of Mercier’s ‘honey trap’ woman agents, and has now been blackmailed / seduced into travelling once a month to Warsaw where he a) has hot, giggling rumpy-pumpy with the supposed ‘Countess Sczelenska’ (real name Hana Musser, a half-Czech, half-German refugee from the ‘fulminous Nazi politics’ of the Sudetenland), and b) the following day meets Mercier to hand over blueprints and diagrams about German tanks, and receive a packet of collars in return. But Uhl is getting increasingly nervous…

Paris Furst has acknowledged his debt to Eric Ambler who wrote half a dozen spy thrillers set in Eastern Europe, actually during the last years of the 1930s, with brilliantly atmospheric evocations of Eastern and MittelEuropa. Following the master, his stories are set outside the Anglophone comfort zone of Britain or the USA, instead among the capital cities and fog-shrouded landscapes of Hungary, Turkey, Serbia, Romania or, in this case, Warsaw.

However, although the adventures often take place in remote parts of Eastern Europe, the texts’ centre of gravity is nearly always the European city Furst which lived in for years and where his heart obviously belongs – lovers’ Paris, the Paris where French movie producer Jean Casson, Hungarian exile Nicholas Morath, Russian émigré Ilya Serebin, and Italian foreign correspondent Carlo Weisz (the heroes of his previous novels) all have apartments regularly adorned by nubile young ladies, and where they depart from for foreign adventures before gratefully returning in various states of disrepair. Paris is the meta-location of these novels, thus Mercier feels ‘the Parisian mystique take hold of his heart: a sudden nameless ecstasy in the damp air’, as soon as he is back there (p.119).

Datestamps As usual the novel is divided into a handful of long parts or acts – in this case, four – each made up of numerous much shorter sections, often marked with a date stamp to give a sense of the urgent passage of time, of the ominous forward momentum of events. The earliest is 17 October 1937, the last one 9 May 1938.


1. Hotel Europejski

It is autumn 1937. Herr Uhl, happily married with kids, makes excuses to visit the factory down on the Polish border once a month but in fact pops over to Warsaw, checks into the Hotel Europejski and has championship sex with the plump, big-bottomed ‘Countess Sczelenska’. Colonel Mercia is French military attaché to Warsaw. We meet him playing tennis with the cream of Warsaw’s cosmopolitan high society at the rich country mansion of Prince Kazimierz.

Mercier is the ‘control’ of Herr Uhl, meets him in a seedy café in a working class quarter, pays him money, takes diagrams of German tank technology. Later Mercier packs night wear and a revolver and is driven by Marek, the loyal Polish chauffeur, down to Katowice on the German border where he and Marek crawl at night through the various lines of barbed wire, before a searchlight goes on and they have to shoot their way out and back to the Polish side. The tank traps which used to feature in these defences have been filled in: Why? To make them easier for tanks to cross. Why? When? Puzzling.

Uhl gets panicky on the train back into Germany and becomes convinced ‘they’ ie the Gestapo, are waiting for him at passport control. He dodges out of the queue waiting to hand over their passports, nips back under the train to steps down to the river and walks back to the previous station. But this suspicious activity was noticed and reported, a report which eventually percolates up to Sturmbannführer (Major) August Voss in local Sicherheitsdienst (SD) headquarters at Glogau. It takes them a while but his operatives eventually match the description of a pot-bellied businessman with a big knobby nose who behaved suspiciously with Uhl.

Thus, after Mercier’s next rendezvous with Uhl a month later, Mercier, leaving the rendezvous cafe separately, accidentally sees Uhl being forcefully chatted up by a stunning blonde and tails the pair back to a rent-by-the-hour hotel in the red light district. But when the blonde comes running downstairs ten minutes later, and is followed by a big goon carrying a package wrapped in bedsheets, Mercier intervenes, there’s a fight, the Krauts make off in a getaway car and Mercier unwraps the roped-up bedsheets to discover Uhl inside, almost dead. Not quite. He is spirited away to hospital.

In a different plotline – Mercier is invited to a diplomatic reception given to entertain businessmen from the French company Renault, who are trying to sell the Polish government armaments. His regular consort drops out and at suggests a replacement, the girlfriend of a Russian émigré writer (Maxim Mostov), the young and lovely Anna Szarbek, who works for the League of Nations as a lawyer. Guess what happens, go on, guess. Yes, they fall in love and thus begins a passionate love affair set against the looming threat of war!

Among Mercier’s routine chores are regular meetings with his opposite number, Colonel Anton Vyborg, who we’ve already met in Furst’s novels Dark Star and The Polish Officer, both set a few years later, after the German invasion of Poland in September 1939. In one meeting Mercier admires a map which Vyborg casually mentions was drawn up by Captain de Milja of the Geographical Section (p.222). Alert readers will remember that this same de Milja is the Polish Officer in the novel of the same name. If the reader had read either of those novels he would have a strong sense of the doom which all these characters are heading towards…

Mercier is reprimanded by the Ambassador for the diplomatic embarrassment of ‘the Uhl Affair’, and is recalled to Paris to explain.

2. On Raven Hill

Paris, where almost all Furst’s novels start and end. Mercier returns to the huge apartment in the 7th arrondissement and bumps into cousin Albertine, the one who initiated him into the joys of sex when he was an innocent 14-year-old. Now she is formal, polite, friendly – but with a teasing hint of flirtation…

Mercier has a formal interview with Colonel Bruner who reprimands him for causing a scene and losing an agent. Meanwhile, in Berlin, Sturmbannführer August Voss has his ear bitten off by his boss about the cack-handed fiasco with Uhl. Infuriated Voss had had one of his thugs identify who it was who interfered in the street, i.e. he has got Mercier in his sights.

In every single one of Furst’s novels he mentions the fictional Brasserie Heininger, the supposedly upmarket, must-be-seen-at Paris nightclub and restaurant. In Night Soldiers it was the scene of an exciting and thrilling shootout, when the Bulgarian head waiter was assassinated for interfering in politics by assassins who then shot the place up and the owners left one mirror, cracked by a bullet hole, in place as a memento, the table beneath it, table 14, quickly becoming the most fashionable one to dine at.

But whereas in Night Soldiers the actual event was part of a genuinely gripping narrative about the criminal and espionage underworld of Paris, repetition of this story has made it boring and banal, and it is now getting irritating (p.137). Mercier is taken to the Brasserie for lunch by Aristide de Beauvilliers, the intellectual on the French High Council for War who, of course, insists on sitting at the famous table and telling him the story of the bullet hole – yawn.

Mercier reports that Uhl was due to go watch German tank manoeuvres at a place called Schramberg. He’s been reading the German General Guderian’s book about tank tactics, Achtung – Panzer! He’s come to the conclusion that the Germans will attack through Belgium, north of France’s supposedly impenetrable Maginot Line. De Beauvilliers agrees but explains that the French Army is in the grip of old men who think they’re infallible. Pétain, hero of Verdun, has ridiculed the Ardennes theory, so it is squashed. Meanwhile, French politicians are so polarised that no decisions, no funding for the Army, is forthcoming. We readers know all this means France will be conquered in a matter of weeks by Hitler’s Blitzkrieg in June 1940.

Mercier returns to Warsaw. He attends another reception where he is anxious to see whether Anna Szarbek will attend. She does. His heart soars. Walking her back to her apartment they are caught in a sudden snowstorm and duck into a cinema where they end up snogging. He sees her to her door where she is charmingly shy and conflicted about whether they should see each other again. Women, huh?

In action mode, Mercier slips into civilian clothes, flies to Switzerland, is briefed by a useful fellow official at the French consulate there, given a pistol, maps, compass and then driven by a reliable local, Stefan, across the border to Schramberg. He makes his own way out to the test zone, hides and then observes the German tank manoeuvres for himself.

3. The Black Front

Mercier celebrates Christmas and New Year at his estate back in southern France. The loyal family retainers. The loyal hunting dogs. Mass at the local church with the surviving relations, including an irritating right-wing uncle. Then, gratefully, back to Warsaw. Mercier sends his report of the German tank manoeuvres to Paris. De Beauvilliers hints that it will be ignored by the foolish high command.

Mercier receives a clandestine plea from the two Russian diplomats who he’s always meeting at receptions, a Jewish couple, Viktor and Malka Rozen. They have been ordered back to Moscow. They know they will be interrogated and shot. They wish to defect. He checks with his superiors, then makes an appointment to meet them, but they don’t show.

In Paris Madame Dupin had told him about a League of Nations conference to do with laws surrounding national minorities and refugees. He immediately wonders whether Anna will be going and, if so, she will be free from the clutches of the Russian boyfriend. He arranges with his bosses to go, impatiently and excitedly boards the train and – lo and behold! – she is on it and – quelle surprise! – they are soon in her overnight compartment where he quickly finds out she has ‘small breasts in a lacy black bra’ (p.216) among other discoveries.

Back in Warsaw, Mercier returns to routine work: a letter from Uhl, now recovered, saying he is being sent to safety in Quebec, with a new identity and job. Meetings. Colonel Vyborg invites him to a private meeting and tells him he is under surveillance by people attached to the German embassy. Neither of them know they are thugs hired by Sturmbannführer Voss, the angry man humiliated in the Uhl fiasco.

One night there is a frantic beating at the door and it is Madame Rozen. This sparks the most exciting passage in the novel as she has fled the embassy, but her husband twisted an ankle and is in a park up the road. It is midnight. Mercier packs his Browning pistol and makes his way through the deserted streets, making the reader as tense as he is. He finds Rozen, becoming incoherent with the freezing cold, and supports him all the way back to his apartment, with one interruption. An angry man steps out to confront them but Mercier waves his gun and the man strolls away. From the description, the reader suspects it is Voss not anybody from the NKVD who might be tailing the Rozens.

Mercier calls the embassy and his people put in place a successful operation to exfiltrate the two Russians, his boss Jourdain, the embassy chauffeur Marek, a motorcycle guard, they drive out to a remote airfield where a plane arrives bearing Colonel Bruner, Mercier’s boss, all the way from Paris. The Rozens climb into it and it departs. Panic over. Mercier returns to his apartment for a well-earned kip.

Next night he entertains Anna to dinner and Furstian sex. She has moved out of the apartment she shared with the Russian writer. They are now definitely an item.

At a diplomatic dinner given by the Portuguese embassy, Mercier is surprised to find himself in conversation with the courtly old Dr Lapp, a German businessman assumed to have some part in the Abwehr or German intelligence. Very slyly he indicates that he is a true German patriot and not so keen on the present regime. Shall we meet again, somewhere more private? Mercier repeats the conversation to his boss who points out that he’s becoming quite the spymaster. It was the incident of saving Uhl from being abducted by the Germans; everybody heard about it and everybody deduced his role.

4. A Shadow of War

March 1938. Mercier, in his capacity as military attaché, goes on a typically boring trip to a Polish arms, armoured car and light tank factory, the Ursus Tractor Company in the suburb of Wola. Mercier leaves the factory after a long, exhaustive tour but his faithful driver Marek is not waiting as they’d arranged. Instead, out of the shadows emerge three menacing figures who, before, he can react, surround Mercier and start beating him up, whipping him with a horsewhip, punching and kicking to the ground. It’s looking bad for our hero when a shot rings out and the bad guys desist the beating and run off. The gun was fired by Marek the driver who comes running up to his boss and helps him to his feet. He describes how he’d parked a few streets away and had himself been approached by a thug who drew a gun. Being the sturdy dependable type he is, Marek simply shot this figure.

The reader knows the three assailants are Major Voss and two of his SD thug pals. Voss is very angry at Mercier for interfering in the abduction of Uhl, and blames him for his recent transfer to a small provincial town, Schweinfurt. This demotion was the last straw had determined him to travel to Warsaw with two drinking buddies and ugly bullies from the SD – Meino and Willi – fired up by fantasies of kidnapping Mercier and torturing him, maybe in front of his pretty girlfriend. They were met off the train and driven around by local German thug, Winckelmann, and this is the man who approached Marke threateningly and who Marek shot dead.

Safely back in the centre of town, Mercier is tended by Anna. A few days later he has the planned meeting with Dr Lapp. Mercier passes on the message he has been given by his bosses that Dr Lapp should travel to Paris and phone the number he hands him. He’ll be met by the sophisticated de Beauvilliers and discussion about recruiting him will proceed from there. But Mercier has his own agenda. Running like an unobtrusive thread has been gossip and speculation about a shadowy organisation that opposes the Nazis from within, in fact which originated within the Nazi party itself. Initially, there was a genuinely socialist wing of the party, which wanted to do away with big industrialists, redistribute wealth to the workers and so on. But Hitler needed rich backers and so, in the Night of The Long Knives in July 1934, he had most of the leaders of the Sturmabteilung (SA) murdered.

But some survived and went underground in what is rumoured to call itself the Black Front. Now Mercier asks Lapp about a name he has heard, a Halbach. Lapp is reluctant to speak, but eventually says, yes it still exists, in feeble shape. Halbach lives under a pseudonym in a Czech border town, writing anti-Nazi pamphlets.

Mercier plans what will be the final sequence in the novel. He gets funds from de Beauvilliers, and maps, and takes local trains to the little town where he confronts Halbach, saying he knows his real identity but – relax! don’t panic! – is offering him the chance for a new, faked Swiss identity, to escape before the Gestapo find him. He just needs his help tracking down another Black Front colleague, known as Hans Köhler. Halbach tells him that Köhler’s real name is Johannes Elter.

Mercier takes Halbach to Prague to get a new passport and identity, buys a decent second-hand car and drives the pair of them across the border, on a tense car journey all the way to Berlin, where Elter lives. They stay overnight in a rough brothel, visited by drunk SS men. Next day Mercier drives Halbach to the converted church where he knows he is part of a model railway club (!). Elter is shocked to see his old comrade. In private, Halbach explains that the Gestapo are moving in but that he, Halbach, has found a sponsor who can guarantee safety. All he must do is bring all the secret documents he can get his hands on from office I.N.6, the section of Military Intelligence dedicated to making plans against France, to a certain hotel the next day.

It’s a lot for Elter to take in but he handles Halbach’s passport, is shown the money, and promises to be at the bar the next evening. Halbach returns to Merciers car and they drive north for three hours to the port of Rostock where Halbach catches the ferry to Denmark, to be a free man, his job done. Mercier returns and checks into the grand hotel where, the next evening, exactly on time, Elter appears with a heavy briefcase. Mercier takes him up to his bedroom, hands him passport and cash. The pair stand in the darkened room. For a moment I thought the door was about to burst open and the Gestapo rush in but in fact Elter hesitantly says that, if there’s more money, he’s prepared to do this some more. Mercier, momentarily wrong-footed, quickly agrees. They part.

Mercier examines his haul. 73 documents ranging from the trivial to maps of the Ardennes with attack routes sketched. Next day he flies from Tempelhof airport to Le Bourget with the docs in a fake bottomed briefcase, and by taxi to the French High Command. Waits several days. When he is called in for an interview, his colleague de Beauvilliers offers him a job with his small intelligence unit in Paris. But his boss, Colonel Bruner, genial and pleased, congratulates him, confirms his promotion to colonel and then floats the theory that maybe the whole thing was a set-up: Halbach an imposter, Elter a fake, the documents a deliberate decoy, part of a canny plan to deceive the French.

Disgusted Mercier catches a cab back to the family apartment where cousin Albertine is getting drunk with Anna who he’s brought along for the trip.

The novel ends with a short paragraph explaining how, 24 months later, General Guderian did invade France through the ‘impenetrable’ Ardennes, to the north of the supposedly ‘impregnable’ Maginot Line, leading France to capitulate within weeks and establish the pro-Nazi Vichy regime.


Dramatis personae

Listing them makes you realise just how many interesting and credible characters Furst creates in each of his novels. The sheer number, and the complex ways they overlap and interact, feed into the larger webs and networks of characters which recur across the novels, themselves symbolic or embodying the complex web of diplomatic, espionage and intelligence manoeuvring across pre-war Europe.

  • Lieutenant-Colonel Jean-François Mercier de Boutillon, French military attaché to Warsaw.
  • Annemarie, his fragrant wife, who died three years earlier.
  • Gabrielle, lovely daughter number one.
  • Béatrice, daughter number two, living in Cairo.
  • Albertine, cousin who initiated him into the joy of sex.
  • Prince Kazimierz, member of Polish aristocracy.
  • the lovely Princess Antoniwa, ditto.
  • Edvard Uhl, businessman and industrial spy for Mercier.
  • ‘Countess Sczelenska’, real name Hana Musser, refugee from the Sudetenland, honey trap mistress of Uhl.
  • Sturmbannführer (Major) August Voss, permanently angry head of the SD in Glogau, who is handed the report about the suspicious behaviour of Uhl on the train back into Germany, whose agents track him down and are about to abduct him from a Warsaw hotel when Mercier intervenes to rescue Uhl – leading to Voss being reprimanded – which leads to his vendetta against with Mercier.
  • Winckelmann, one of his thugs in Warsaw.
  • Meino and Willi, thuggish SD friends Voss travels to Warsaw with to beat up Mercier.
  • Marek, Mercier’s loyal embassy driver.
  • Wlada, Mercier’s skinny nervous housekeeper at his Warsaw apartment.
  • Anna Szarbek, lawyer for the League of Nations, who Mercier falls in love with.
  • Maxim Mostov, Russian émigré writer and journalist, who is upset when Anna leaves him for Mercier, and then is exposed, along with many others, by the intelligence handed over by the Rozens (see below) as a spy, and so deported from Poland back to the USSR.
  • Colonel Anton Vyborg, Mercier’s opposite number in the Polish military, with whom he has regular meetings, Vyborg featured in Furst’s earlier novels, Dark Star and The Polish Officer.
  • Captain de Milja of the Geographical Section of Polish Intelligence, mentioned in an off-hand reference by Vyborg, he was the lead figure in Furst’s earlier novel, The Polish Officer.
  • Jourdain, Mercier’s colleague at the French embassy in Poland.
  • The French ambassador to Poland.
  • Colonel Bruner, Mercier’s superior at the Quai d’Orsay back in Paris.
  • Madame Dupin, assistant director of Protocol.
  • de Beauvilliers, the 60-year-old intellectual on the French High Council for War, politely dismissive of the current French Army leadership under the hero of the Great War, old General Pétain.
  • Viktor and Malka Rozen, two Jewish Russian agents in Warsaw who Mercier helps to escape when their own government turns against them.
  • Colonel de Gaulle, Mercier’s contemporary at the St Cyr military college, and with whom he shared adventures as French representative to the army of General Pilsudski during the Russo-Polish war of 1920.
  • General Guderian, theorist of tank-led Blitzkrieg.
  • Stefan, drives Mercier from the French embassy in Switzerland across the German border to Schramberg, where Mercier observes Wehrmacht tank manoeuvres in the snow.
  • Dr Lapp, a German businessman who looks like Buster Keaton, is assumed to have some part in the Abwehr or German intelligence, who approaches Mercier at a diplomatic dinner, apparently offering to hand over intelligence.
  • Halbach, member of the underground anti-Nazi movement, the Black Front.
  • Elter, fellow member of the Black Front who Halbach persuades to smuggle documents out of the French section of German High Command headquarters in Berlin.

Credit

The Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst was published in 2008 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All quotes and references are to the 2009 Phoenix paperback edition.

BBC mini-series

The Spies of Warsaw was adapted by the BBC into a two-part mini-series for TV, snappily retitled Spies of Warsaw and starring a post-Dr Who David Tennant as the dashing Colonel Mercier.

 Related links

The Night Soldiers novels

1988 Night Soldiers –  An epic narrative which starts with a cohort of recruits to the NKVD spy school of 1934 and then follows their fortunes across Europe, to the Spain of the Civil War, to Paris, to Prague and Switzerland, to the gulags of Siberia and the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto, in a Europe beset by espionage, conspiracy, treachery and murder.
1991 Dark Star – The story of Russian Jew André Szara, foreign correspondent for Pravda, who finds himself recruited into the NKVD and entering a maze of conspiracies, based in Paris but taking him to Prague, Berlin and onto Poland – in the early parts of which he struggles to survive in the shark-infested world of espionage, to conduct a love affair with a young German woman, and to help organise a network smuggling German Jews to Palestine; then later, as Poland is invaded by Nazi Germany, finds himself on the run across Europe. (390 pages)
1995 The Polish Officer – A long, exhausting chronicle of the many adventures of Captain Alexander de Milja, Polish intelligence officer who carries out assignments in Nazi-occupied Poland and then Nazi-occupied Paris and then, finally, in freezing wintertime Poland during the German attack on Russia.
1996 The World at Night – A year in the life of French movie producer Jean Casson, commencing on the day the Germans invade in June 1940, following his ineffectual mobilisation into a film unit which almost immediately falls back from the front line, his flight, and return to normality in occupied Paris where he finds himself unwittingly caught between the conflicting claims of the Resistance, British Intelligence and the Gestapo. (304 pages)
1999 Red Gold – Sequel to the World At Night, continuing the adventures of ex-film producer Jean Casson in the underworld of occupied Paris and in various Resistance missions across France. (284 pages)
2000 Kingdom of Shadows – Hungarian exile in Paris, Nicholas Morath, undertakes various undercover missions to Eastern Europe at the bidding of his uncle, Count Janos Polanyi, a kind of freelance espionage controller in the Hungarian Legation. Once more there is championship sex, fine restaurants and dinner parties in the civilised West, set against shootouts in forests, beatings by the Romanian police, and fire-fights with Sudeten Germans, in the murky East.
2003 Blood of Victory – Russian émigré writer, Ilya Serebin, gets recruited into a conspiracy to prevent the Nazis getting their hands on Romania’s oil, though it takes a while to realise who’s running the plot – Count Polanyi – and on whose behalf – Britain’s – and what it will consist of – sinking tugs carrying huge turbines at a shallow stretch of the river Danube, thus blocking it to oil traffic. (298 pages)
2004 Dark Voyage – In fact numerous voyages made by the tramp steamer Noordendam and its captain Eric DeHaan, after it is co-opted to carry out covert missions for the Allied cause, covering a period from 30 April to 23 June 1941. Atmospheric and evocative, the best of the last three or four. (309 pages)
2006 The Foreign Correspondent – The adventures of Carlo Weisz, an Italian exile from Mussolini living in Paris in 1938 and 1939, as Europe heads towards war. He is a journalist working for Reuters and co-editor of an anti-fascist freesheet, Liberazione, and we see him return from Civil War Spain, resume his love affair with a beautiful German countess in Nazi Berlin, and back in Paris juggle conflicting requests from the French Sûreté and British Secret Intelligence Service, while dodging threats from Mussolini’s secret police.
2008 The Spies of Warsaw The adventures of Jean Mercier, French military attaché in Warsaw between autumn 1937 and spring 1938, during which he has an affair with sexy young Anna Szarbek, helps two Russian defectors flee to France, is nearly murdered by German agents and, finally, though daring initiative secures priceless documents indicating german plans to invade France through the Ardennes – which his criminally obtuse superiors in the French High Command choose to ignore!
2010 Spies of the Balkans
2012 Mission to Paris
2014 Midnight in Europe
2016 A Hero in France

The Polish Officer by Alan Furst (1995)

Poland, September 1939, a nation being carved in two by the German Wehrmacht invading from the West and Stalin’s Red Army invading from the East. This, Alan Furst’s third novel, follows the adventures of Alexander de Milja (pronounced Mil-ya, p.24), a captain in Polish Military Intelligence, who is among the many Poles who vow to fight back against both invaders.

The novel is divided into five long sections.

1. The Pilava Local

The Germans have reached Warsaw. They are fighting their way through the streets. De Milja is summoned from his defence of the Warsaw telephone exchange to meet Colonel Anton Vyborg. (We met Vyborg towards the end of the previous novel, Dark Star, when he and the journalist hero Szara fled before the invading forces at the start of the invasion ie the scenes involving him here take place only a few days after is scenes in Dark Star. Characters are interlinked. History is interlinked.)

De Milja is tasked with finding a train to carry Poland’s entire national gold reserve south to Romania. This he does, his men concealing it under the floor of ordinary carriages, and then filling up with refugees at Warsaw station before a long journey south, punctuated by an attack by a German fighter plane, which leaves numerous dead and injured, and later, a holdup by violent Ukrainian bandits, which leaves more dead. Eventually they make it to the Romanian border and both refugees and the gold are allowed in.

2. Room 9

October 1939, Poland has fallen. From the safety of Romania de Milja returns into Poland, first to make sure his mentally ill wife is alright, at her asylum, then to set up a network in occupied Poland. The underground is to be called ZWZ, Zwiazek Walki Zbrojnej – the Union for Armed struggle, answerable to the Polish government in exile in London. De Milja is recruited into the intelligence directorate run by Colonel Josef Broza, one-time military attaché to Brussels. The recruitment takes place in room 9 in the basement of the Saint Stanislaus Hospital.

The leaflets They pay a printer to print thousands of leaflets, then steal a plane from a small flying club, and circle high over Warsaw, dropping them. They tell the civilian population they are dropped by RAF planes and soon bombers will return to drive the Germans out. Not true. A little while later the printer is rounded up by the Gestapo. De Milja and colleagues realise someone has snitched. It is the tough detective they’d involved in the plot, who says the printer was only a snivelling Jew anyway. They execute him in a dirty alley under a railway bridge.

Madame Kuester De Milja moves around, never staying in the same safe apartment too long. In one apartment he has an affair with the stodgy Madame Kuester, a stocky, disapproving middle-aged woman who turns out to have a need to be passionately taken doggy fashion every afternoon at 2.35 precisely.

Network information An old lady buying rags outside a Wehrmacht barracks, sells them on to a rag dealer who passes them to a chemist who analyses the type of oil. A commodity analyst in Warsaw writes a report about wool. De Milja manages this information which indicates a) the Germans aren’t deploying the kind of low-temperature oil they would need in Russia, nor are they buying up wool. Conclusion: they will not invade Russia this year (1940). So it will be France.

Rumbled On 28 March the Gestapo come to the apartment block where he’s hiding. The other inhabitants, who knew about him, make it downstairs and escape. De Milja climbs to the roof, evades the armed guard there, but slips and falls badly against the fire escape of the neighbouring building, concussing himself. He is helped to safety, hidden, then shipped out of the city to a safe farmhouse where he is patched up and slowly recovers.

Coal steamer to Stockholm Here he is told the Saint Stanislaus Hospital cell has been betrayed and captured, though some managed to take cyanide. He is now ordered to evacuate to Paris. There is fascinating detail on the Polish underground and its ability to match the German obsession for paperwork. De Milja is smuggled north to the port of Gdinya, then into the hold of a steamer carrying coal to Stockholm. It takes 70 hours and de Milja becomes poisoned by the carbon monoxide and dioxide fumes, hallucinates, loses consciousness and, by the time the hold is opened in Stockholm, the strong implication is he’s dead.

3. Lezhev’s Last Day

Cut to a completely new character, Boris Lezhev, a depressed Russian poet who has fled before various persecuting authorities right across Europe. We are just getting to know his depressive personality when he actually does die (by suicide? it’s not clear) bequeathing his works to his muse, Genya Beilis, who is, of course, an agent.

Like Dark Star many of the short sections are dated with a timestamp. On 9 June 1940 de Milja (so he didn’t die in the coal hold of the steamer) is meeting a French army officer, Major Kercheval, at a headquarters at Les Invalides. They are very clearly pulling out, burning their files etc. He meets with Vyborg who tells him the French government has fled to Orléans, and de Milja is to remain behind in Paris till the last moment. There is some mockery of the stupidity of the French in building a defensive line against Germany which stopped at the Belgian border. And wonder at the way an entire nation just gave up.

In the middle of the night French security come calling at his safe house, but he is able to bribe the officers, then pack and slip away. He finds somewhere to hide in the shabby area around the Gare Saint-Lazare.

De Milja adopts the cover of the dead poet Boris Lezhev and commences a steamy sexual affair with Genya. In his cover as a bohemian poet he is often found at the notorious drinking hole of artists, the Bar Heiningen (well known to Furst readers for its appearance in his first two novels). He spends a lot of effort cultivating a German officer, Freddi Schoen, who thinks he is an artist.

Along with a colleague, Fedin, de Milja is ordered to scout the forthcoming invasion of Britain, buys a black market delivery van and delivers produce all along the north coast, Dunkirk and so on, logging the numbers of barges on the canals, the names of Wehrmacht units etc, all despatched to a 17-year-old girl who radios it in code to London. She is tracked down by a German radio expert, arrested, crunches a cyanide pill in the Gestapo car. When the obese German radio expert begins to unscrew the captured English radio it explodes killing him. Genya Beilis had been making the drops and notices they’re not being collected, suspects the agent has been rounded up, is given instructions for a new contact procedure.

De Milja passes on information given to him by a French patriot who works in the northern docks about a practice invasion exercise. This results in the British bombing the port of Nieuwpoort, which the narrative describes at first hand. And then Calais. The narrative stops to introduce us to a public school Englishman who flies a Swordfish biplane with a torpedo into Calais harbour just as De Milja achieves a piece of James Bond heroism by making his way right across the armed and secure harbour to find a ship he knows, from the dockyard papers their agent gave them, is loaded with burning naphtha. As the British planes approach de Milja lights up its night lights so they can attack it creating a wonderful explosion by which the rest can bomb the moored German troop ships and barges at will.

De Milja has romantic lover sex with Genya in an isolated hotel by the coast. Then she leaves forever to Switzerland and he burns the Lezher identity.

4. Paris Nights

De Milja is exfiltrated to Spain, debriefed by agents. Vyborg tells him his wife has died of TB. He is returned to Paris with a new identity, as Anton Stein. For the first time in these three Furst novels, I felt a section or plot development was de trop. I found it hard to believe that a man who had led quite a high-profile life as a Russian poet, would be returned to the same city a month later, looking the same but with a quite different identity, for the first thing Stein does is buy a big coal business, and use it as a cover a) for being a rich businessman in Paris b) for finding information about German troop and resources movements.

I bet myself that having lost his wife and his championship sex lover wouldn’t prevent him tumbling into bed with the next woman he meets, and had to wait precisely 10 pages before a dreamboat redhead – Madame Roubier – arrives to decorate the nice villa he’s bought in the Paris suburbs before he is exploring her ‘soft, creamy body’ and listening to her cry ‘oh, oh’.

He hobnobs with rich Parisians and Germans. It is spring 1941 and the British are bombing. He is called suddenly to a church in the east end where he finds Fedin, his fellow agent, has been mortally injured in an air raid.

A contact of Fedin’s at a place called Vannes gets in touch with the network and gives them priceless information that the pilots of the German Pathfinder planes which guide German bombers to their targets all arrive at the airfield in one coach. If they could ambush that coach and massacre the pilots… When this intelligence is passed to London, they reply by parachuting in a cache of arms, explosives and French agents, all co-ordinated on the ground by de Milja.

But at this moment de Milja is recalled to London. He says goodbye to sexy Madame Roubier, his other colleagues, travels to the Spanish border, is collected by a rubber dinghy from a submarine, arrives in cold wartime London, eats the horrible food, and is set to do depressing bureaucratic tasks. Then the opportunity arises to volunteer for service in the East, in expectation of Hitler’s attack on Russia…

The Forest

October 1941, four months into Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s campaign to invade and conquer Russia. De Milja is parachuted into occupied Poland, near the river Bug, with arms, ammunition, explosive, money, to join a partisan group led by Razakavia, backed by Kotior and Frantek. Bronstein the ex-science teacher uses the explosive to blow up rail lines, derailing troop trains which they then decimate with grenades and machine gun fire. He learns of the Banderovsty, Ukrainian nationalists under Bandera, working for the SS. ‘They do what the SS won’t.’ They encounter communist partisans in a struggle over requisitioning grain from peasants. In other words, the bloodlands are full of roving bands of killers.

When he meets with his control, Major Olenik, he is ordered to organise a squad to break into Rovno prison and liberate a certain sergeant Krewinski, who escaped the Katyn massacre, and was sent to Moscow for indoctrination. ZWZ wants to know the procedures, what he learned.

In a very tense sequence de Milja leads his men on a successful break-in to the prison, they liberate Krewinski and others, and drive in a lorry to a safe farmhouse out in the country. Which is attacked by a mass of partisans, following a tip-off, in the early hours. Everyone de Milja knows is killed in the fighting and he just manages to escape with the badly wounded Krewinski, and with a Jewish woman. She asks him to shoot her and stands undefended – they both know what the partisans to do Jewish women – and he raises his pistol to her forehead but can’t do it.

Under a hail of bullets they make it to the lorry and then there are four or five pages of struggling to drive it through the dense Polish forest in the depths of winter, until they come to a river and find it easier to drive on the thick ice, until the river narrows and the ice becomes so slippery it will no longer advance. De Milja and the woman huddle under all the blankets they can find, expecting to falls asleep and never wake up, killed by the bitter sub-zero temperatures.

But he awakens some hours later to realise it is fractionally less freezing, realising it is snowing. the lorry will have traction. they get it started again and drive past burning villages and bridges clogged with Germans too busy to worry about a peasant lorry, until they can scramble it back onto a proper road and climb a hill to look down on the town of Biala as dawn is breaking. They will head down into the town once the curfew is lifted, contact the local ZWZ, be given somewhere to hide and food. They will fight on. They will endure.


Comments

This is shorter and less epic ie with a smaller range of characters, than the previous two novels. It is more ‘domestic’, focusing much more on the one character of de Milja, filling in his family background, his cold northern professor father, his hot-blooded southern mother with the outrageous drunken uncles, the backstory of how his sensitive wife became mentally ill and was sent to an asylum.

This is reflected in the prose style which his more relaxed and informal than previously, with lots of ‘you knows’ and ‘whatevers’ — ‘.. or whatever it meant’, ‘… or whatever description they had’… ‘and God only knew what else..’.

The prose of this third novel is deliberately more casual than the crisper, more documentary factual style of the first two. We are more inside de Milja’s head, skipping verbs, cramming short perceptions together, thrust into just this one character’s feelings – very different from the panoramic overview of the first two.

The escape-route safe house in Torun was run by a girl of no more than seventeen, snub-nosed with cornsilk hair. De Milja felt tenderness and desire all mixed up together. Tough as a stick, this one. Made sure he had a place to sleep, a threadbare blanket, and a glass of beer. Christ, his heart ached for her, for them all because they wouldn’t last the year. (p.107)

The previous novels saw things from a variety of viewpoints, and the characters were interesting and varied and – crucially – the situations were highly political. This novel is much more about the one personality, the Polish officer, and there is still a lot politics, a lot of background information, but somehow the book feels less political.

Whereas the protagonists of the first two were Russian and therefore lived in permanent anxiety about being arrested or betrayed by their own side, in this book the situation is more straightforward – he is an undercover agent in occupied Paris and scared of being caught by the Nazis; it’s much more like lots of other ‘hiding from the Nazis’ novels.

Sensuality

I am getting used to the episodes of frolicsome sex in Furst’s novels. In section two he visits his mentally disturbed wife and they make love on a coat in the asylum grounds. Later there is a very erotic encounter with his stodgy, middle-aged landlady, Madame Kuester, all starched blouses and decorum, who turns out to be reading pornographic novels in the afternoon, and waits for de Milja in her bedroom, skirt hitched up, loins on a pillow so her bum is raised and accessible. The paragraph which describes de Milja’s astonishment at this turn of events, possibly also sums up the effect Furst is aiming for by deploying scenes of very sensual love-making in among the deaths, destruction and corrosive cynicism which the novels describe.

It was the sheer contrast of the moment that struck his heart. The dying, ice-bound city, heavy with fear and misery and the exhaustion of daily life, set against these brittle pages of print, where gold passementerie was untied and heavy drapes flowed together, where pale skin flushed rose with excitement, where silk rustled to the floors of moonlit chambers. (p.84)

It feels like de Milja has a different woman in each of the five sections, each with lovely bottoms, and given to role-playing, saying rude words, lots of sex play and frolic. Maybe undercover agents in occupied Poland and Paris did have lots of sex with smooth-skinned beauties, but there’s more than a dollop of James Bond-style fantasy about much of this.

Recurring characters

  • Not only Vyborg recurs at the start of the novel, but the conductor on the gold train south is the same conductor, with his droopy big moustache, who’d been on the passenger train dive-bombed by a Stuka towards the end of Dark Star.
  • The Bar Heininger recurs for the third time, having become notorious for the assassination of the head waiter Omaraeff in Night Soldiers and then the place where, according to a newspaper scoop last year, Lady Angela Hope recruited the Soviet agent known as CURATE (who, we know from Dark Star, was that novel’s hero, André Szara).
  • In a tiny detail, the Parthenon Press, a little publisher of poetry in the area of Paris where de Milja hides out, includes on its list of poetry by Russians, a volume by Vainshtok. Would this be the same Vainshtok, the sarcastic and unpleasant journalist colleague of Szara who, in Dark Star, in an inexplicable gesture, as he is being arrested and taken back to Moscow for probable execution, palms Szara his pistol, the pistol Szara uses a few minutes later to shoot dead the NKVD officer arresting him, Maltsaev.

The exotic

Too many times to count, the reader finds themself in the company of exotic and strange characters, as if in a movie. Maybe all novels are escapist in that they tell a complete rounded story, unlike our own messy lives. And that people’s motives are comprehensible, unlike the impenetrable inexplicability of so many of the people we meet in real life. And that fictional characters’ lives really matter, their experiences are made up of important decisions and dramatic confrontations etc, unlike most people who spend their lives going to work and worrying about money.

And maybe espionage novels turn up the volume on all of these aspects because the undercover agent can be arrested at any moment, which gives every sight of the blue sky, every smell of fresh coffee, every caress of a lover’s body, an extra force and significance.

But one especial pleasure of this kind of novel is the sheer exoticism of the situations which amount to a mental holiday – abroad, with strange collocations of foreigners, thrown into intense and unusual plights. Hence, de Milja has barely checked into a provincial hotel before the British fighter bombers come swooping in to attack the docks.

On the top floor of the dockside Hotel Vlaanderen, de Milja and a whore wearing a slip and a Turkish seaman wearing underpants watched the fight together through a cracked window. (p.193)

There is something touchingly naive in the ubiquitousness of whores and prostitutes in these novels, as in many other adventure novels. Whereas in ordinary life none of us ever sees a prostitute, in the Paris de Milja walks around every doorway shelters a hooker who whistles, whispers and propositions him, hotels are full of them, you can barely move for them. On the night Fedin dies, de Milja has just arranged for two courtesans to give Count Riau the experience of his life in a private room at a classy restaurant, and when he returns to his drinking buddies they drink a toast to The Pleasures of Excess.

Written by a male novelist for (I’m guessing) a predominantly male audience, these stories fulfil the most primitive male readerly fantasies, which are a) that the hero beds a new, utterly willing, sexually adventurous woman in every chapter and b) that the streets are overflowing with sexually available women.

History

These are historical novels, set in a specific historical period, overflowing with period detail and dense with historical fact. There is a certain kind of pleasure to be derived from rereading once again the horrible chronology of the 1930s, the Stalin purges, the Hitler invasions and then the war itself.

The characters, as spies acting for governments with vested interests in political events, play a part in them, shed light on them, discuss them and analyse them. What is maybe most illuminating about these novels focusing on characters from Russia and Eastern Europe, is the way they shed light on what is, in the West, mostly an unfamiliar and untold history. In doing so they bring out a wealth of new and fascinating perspectives on what we thought was a well known period of history.

Thus the early two sections vividly convey not just the shock and horror of the German assault on Poland, but the wild opinions the Poles held at the time – the British are coming, the Americans will intervene, we will be saved. For 9 months from September 1939 until June 1940, many Poles clung on to the hope that the French and British will intervene to save them somehow. But then, in June 1940, France fell to Hitler, almost without a fight. And it is at that point that there was a wave of suicides across Poland as people lost hope, and couldn’t face a life of tyranny. Not something I knew or had thought about.

Again, in the final sections de Milja meets his control in the occupied city of Rosnov and they discuss the possible scenarios: the Germans defeat the Russians and permanently occupy Poland – then, permanent sabotage and resistance; the Russians defeat the Germans and push them back to the Rhine – then permanent resistance to the Russians; the Russians defeat the Germans but, at the moment they are poised to enter Poland, declaration of independence and a Great Uprising.

We know what happened. It’s witnessing intelligent people working out the options, discussing and speculating, that gives the novels a terrible pathos, but also makes them intellectually interesting.

These novels bristle with history as seen by non-Brits and non-Americans; as seen by the long-suffering nations of the East. We knew their twentieth century was horrible, but Furst’s novels brilliantly dramatise the day-to-day opinions and hopes and arguments of people living through these horrors, and that’s what brings them so powerfully alive in the reader’s imagination.


Credit

The Polish Officer by Alan Furst was published in 1995 by HarperCollins. All quotes and references are to the 2001 Ottakars/HarperCollins paperback edition.

 Related links

The Night Soldiers novels

1988 Night Soldiers –  An epic narrative which starts with a cohort of recruits to the NKVD spy school of 1934 and then follows their fortunes across Europe, to the Spain of the Civil War, to Paris, to Prague and Switzerland, to the gulags of Siberia and the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto, in a Europe beset by espionage, conspiracy, treachery and murder.
1991 Dark Star – The story of Russian Jew André Szara, foreign correspondent for Pravda, who finds himself recruited into the NKVD and entering a maze of conspiracies, based in Paris but taking him to Prague, Berlin and onto Poland – in the early parts of which he struggles to survive in the shark-infested world of espionage, to conduct a love affair with a young German woman, and to help organise a network smuggling German Jews to Palestine; then later, as Poland is invaded by Nazi Germany, finds himself on the run across Europe.
1995 The Polish Officer – A long, exhausting chronicle of the many adventures of Captain Alexander de Milja, Polish intelligence officer who carries out assignments in Nazi-occupied Poland and then Nazi-occupied Paris and then, finally, in freezing wintertime Poland during the German attack on Russia.
1996 The World at Night
1999 Red Gold
2000 Kingdom of Shadows
2003 Blood of Victory
2004 Dark Voyage
2006 The Foreign Correspondent
2008 The Spies of Warsaw
2010 Spies of the Balkans
2012 Mission to Paris
2014 Midnight in Europe
2016 A Hero in France

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