(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Alan Furst’s The Polish Officer belongs to the genre of the spy novel, but it is a spy novel with depth. While providing the standard spy-novel action and characters, Furst avoids the James Bond comic-book effect and instead leans in the direction of such masters of the genre as Graham Greene and John le Carré. The depth in his work comes from the aura of a certain time and place that he creates. If the ability to create or evoke a world—say, Victorian or Edwardian England or Sigmund Freud’s Vienna—is the mark of a true novelist, then Alan Furst has it.

The world Furst re-creates, here and in his previous novels of espionage—Night Soldiers (1988) and Dark Star (1991)—is Europe around the onset of World War II. With the lessons of World War I unlearned, Europe remains racked by ethnic stereotypes and old assumptions about cultural expansion by military might and conquest. One alarming development is that some hail Nazi conquest as a good thing, a means of achieving a united “New Europe,” as though they are incapable of distinguishing the cure from the cause. New technology in weapons and communications—airplanes and radio signals that erase national borders—has continued to render the old assumptions obsolete. So Europe around the onset of World War II is a curious mix of the old and the new, of bolt-action rifles and Katyusha rockets, of horses and tanks, of Maginot line and Blitzkrieg, of Wehrwille and the dawn of mutually assured destruction.

Furst displays expertise in almost every aspect of Europe during these years, from military history to geography to culture. He certainly knows about guns and planes and acronyms. He seems to know the name of every town and village in Europe, not to mention railway lines, streams, and marshes. He describes the German technique for tracing and pinpointing radio signals, and he shrewdly identifies the low viscosity of German oil as an important factor on the eastern front. He also notes numerous other tidbits of information, such as a sign in Wilno gracing the Moscow road: One side (going) reads, “On 28 June, 1812, Napoleon Bonaparte passed this way with 450,000 men,” while the other side (coming) reads, “On 9 December, 1812, Napoleon Bonaparte passed this way with 900 men.” No subject appears to trip up Furst, except possibly agriculture.The Polish Officer ends in numbing winter cold, with the protagonist, Captain Alexander de Milja, and a Jewish woman escaping the Nazis by driving a heavy truck down a frozen river. Eventually they leave the river and reach the outskirts of Biala, where they park to await dawn: “Then,” announces de Milja, “we can go into the open-air market with the produce trucks from the countryside.” This seems like an uncharacteristic lapse, though “produce” here could refer to any kind of food, such as meat or stored-up root crops. Generally speaking, however, reading Furst is a painless way of improving one’s education.

Furst’s semidocumentary style also produces other benefits. In particular, it lends a layer of reality or credibility to the conventional features of a spy novel—plenty of exciting action, disguise, and intrigue, coupled with colorful but thinly drawn characters. Although The Polish Officer lacks a suspenseful plot, it has numerous episodes of gripping action. The novel’s opening section, “The Pilava Local,” contains such an episode: With Warsaw under attack, Captain de Milja is put in charge of a train carrying the national gold reserves to Romania—a harrowing journey beset by...

(The entire section is 1461 words.)