As the nations of Europe posture and prepare for war in the autumn of 1937, an intricate subculture of spies and sumptuous living thrives. Initially Alan Furst’s The Spies of Warsaw appears to be a rather mundane tale of the daily life of mediocre agents: clandestine meetings, bits and pieces of boring information exchanged in protracted secret. Colonel Jean-Francois Mercier has retired from distinguished military service during the war to end all wars (World War I) and has settled into a bureaucratic job. Although it is not his beloved France, there are some gastronomic and other perks seasoned with a dash of minor espionage to be found in Warsaw. Mercier meets periodically with Edvard Uhl, an engineer at an ironworks that produces tanks for the Germans. Uhl proves to be a skittish spy, who only reluctantly provides seemingly innocuous information about tank production.
“Hotel Europejski” starts slowly. The author paints the scenes with care and exquisite detail. Situated in the heart of prewar Warsaw, the hotel is the site of periodic trysts between Uhl and his mysterious mistress, Countess Sczelenska. She captures Uhl’s heart but also manages to snuggle comfortably into his pocketbook. She explains to him that, unless he helps to subsidize her living arrangements, her desperate financial situation will force her to move in with her aunt, who resides in Chicago. He does not want to lose her or at least the comfort of her loving. He agrees to a proposal that the countess suggests: her cousin knows a man who hires “industrial experts.” Poor Uhl is hooked. The new but profitable liaison introduces him into a game of espionage and fear. The countess’s identity is somewhat in doubt: Is she really of aristocratic blood, or is she a part of the shadowy network of spies and intrigue that weaves itself in and out of the novel’s pages?
Uhl’s life becomes more complicated. His anxiety over what he is doing causes him to appear nervous as he rides the train across the Polish border back home to Breslau. Although he successfully avoids a compromising encounter with Nazi SS officers, a dutiful citizen, Frau Schimmel, reports his suspicious behavior to the authorities. The tentacles of German intelligence, controlled by August Voss, reach out to encircle poor Uhl. Will the contact with Mercier bring him disaster or salvation? At the very least it will become clear that his spying and philandering days are behind him, as is his life as a family man and ordinary engineer of Breslau.
The pace of the book heats up as Mercier moves in “On Raven Hill.” Determined to discover the specifics of Adolf Hitler’s plans for the invasion of Europe, Mercier travels in his trusty Buick with his faithful and resourceful driver, Marek, to the Polish-German border. The colonel’s goal is to ascertain the most likely point of German invasion, which he assumes will be launched with tanks. He ventures into the forest through which he speculates Germany will invade. However, tanks do not go into forests, at least that is the firm opinion of Mercier’s superiors. Quick page turning promises to resolve for the reader the questions of whether Mercier’s forays into enemy territory will be discovered, whether he will be caught, and whether his assessment of the location of the looming threat is accurate.
The action of the book heats up as additional persons of interest come on stage. Viktor and Malka Rozen, known to be Russian spies, are among the guests at the lavish cocktail party hosted by the Polish Foreign Ministry. Such parties provide ample opportunity for tidbits of rich food as well as of random bits of intelligence, as the guests intermingle in the rich tapestry of spydom. One never knows whom one will meet or whether a morsel of cocktail chitchat is a clue to some important information. The seemingly casual encounter between Mercier...
(The entire section is 1588 words.)