On the attaché's case
Dirty deeds abound in Alan Furst's Nazi-era Europe
The Observer, Sunday 13 July 2008
The Spies of Warsaw
Weidenfeld & Nicolson £16.99, pp276
Alan Furst's historical espionage novels, of which this is the 10th, share many characteristics. His leading characters, whether Hungarian diplomats, Dutch ship captains or émigré Russian writers, are drawn to the clandestine world of Europe just before or in the early years of the Second World War by clouded mixtures of patriotism, noblesse oblige or, more often, because they have no choice.
Only in the first, the over-long and over-egged Night Soldiers, does the action travel much beyond the American entry into the war and there is a good reason for this. Furst is immersed in Europe at its darkest; he wanted to call the series 'Midnight in the Century', but that title was already taken by Victor Serge's 1939 novel about Stalin's purges. Within this self-imposed time frame, Furst's characters are doomed, if not to failure, then at best to limited success. So, in addition to the spy novel's typical freight of mental trauma - betrayal and deception - these books carry a wagonload of existential crisis. Really, they should have been written on the Left Bank, not in a studio on Long Island.
Here Furst returns to Warsaw in 1937. The French military attaché Colonel Mercier is having a spot of bother with one of his agents, but all the while he must continue the diplomatic minuet. Furst relishes the niceties of cocktail parties and banquets, of a world not yet at war, but in which the martial drums can be heard ever more insistently in the background. In the German town of Glogau, the base of Mercier's German adversary, there is a toy shop that 'had stood there for years, closing only briefly, when the Jewish owner abruptly left for the city, then reopening in a day or two, the glass in the windows replaced by the new owner'.
When Mercier travels on a false passport to Berlin, he finds that 'all the roads in Germany were good now, a military necessity for a country with enemies east and west'. Thus is the Nazi mindset - the barbarity of Kristallnacht, the propaganda-inspired fear of other nations' intentions - laid casually bare.
As always with Furst, affairs of state entwine with affairs of the heart. Goodness, but these spies do have a lot of sex - in the showers at an aristocratic Polish tennis club, in a wagon-lit on the way to Belgrade, at a smart address in Paris. But, also as ever, the duplicity of the day job seeps into the bedroom.
As for the spying, little things mean a lot. In previous novels, discovering the amount of strengthened steel wire produced by one factory for the Luftwaffe allowed Germany's enemies to calculate how many bombers the Nazis were producing; and learning whether there was a change in the viscosity of the Wehrmacht's gun lubricant pointed to the chances of a winter campaign in Russia. Here, while secretly observing Panzer exercises in the Black Forest, Mercier sees a simple trick performed with a length of pipe strapped across a car and draws his own conclusions about the chances of an attack on France through the Belgian Ardennes, knowledge that we know will not be put to good use.
From all the above, a new reader could be forgiven for thinking that Furst just follows a formula, but that ignores the role that history plays in shaping the books. Warnings are ignored and intentions misread because that is precisely what happened in the Thirties. Throughout the intricate plot involving Russian defections and tensions within the different arms of German intelligence, less well-known parts of interwar history - the Polish-Russian war of 1921, real Polish-German spy scandals of the Thirties - play their part. But ultimately, it is neither plot nor history that draws the reader in: it's the evocation of smoky workers' bars at dawn on the Vistula, of raucous brothels at night in Berlin, the small signs of a continent staggering towards catastrophe.
There are also little gifts here for regular readers. Mercier occasionally shares information with his Polish opposite number, Colonel Vyborg, who appears in Dark Star and The Polish Officer, showing up in the latter in Warsaw in September 1939 a day or so after he had escaped from Stukas bombing Lvov in the former. Furst has a small supporting cast of people and places that pop up irregularly throughout the series and this binding of casts helps to solidify the world he has created - it is Europe, but it is Furst's Europe, one in which the darkness comes to everyone, and love remains the only light that stands against it.
Spies of Warsaw, BBC Four, review
BBC Four's Spies of Warsaw, based on Alan Furst's novel and starring David Tennant, is a thrilling yarn, writes Christopher Howse.
By Christopher Howse 10 Jan 2013 in The Telegraph.
I was glad to find that there was no need to hide behind a cushion at any point during Spies of Warsaw (BBC Four). This yarn of émigrés and rather black-looking blueprints never became too visually brutal, nor was the love interest between David Tennant (as Lt Col Jean-François Mercier, a French spy) and the pleasing Janet Montgomery (as Anna Skarbek, a lawyer with the League of Nations) too embarrassing for intergenerational shared viewing, even when things got steamy on a steam train. No doubt, though, some railway gricer will point out that locomotives with the wheel configuration 4-6-0 never ran between Warsaw and Budapest in the Thirties.
The action began in 1937, four years before the birth of Alan Furst, the American author of the book behind the drama. If I kept wondering whether this was really how Warsaw looked in the Thirties it was not for want of things happening. No sooner had we begun to know Ann Eleonora Jørgensen’s Countess (who, in fact, turned out to not be a countess at all) than she had been brutally strangled by Nazi agents.
So, after going to the expense of making the equivalent of a cinema blockbuster, the BBC and its co-producers might better have developed the story into an eight-part serial. However, squashing it into two slices of 90 minutes did have the unintended consequence of increasing a sense of reality, by providing an unexplained hinterland. The unexplained world seemed bigger than the scenes we were shown.
Yet Alan Furst’s books take history and paint over it with fiction, with invented landmarks such as the Brasserie Heininger, based on the real Parisian Bofinger. It figures in several of his works, with a bullet-hole in the mirror above table 14, and it had a bit part last night, although the holed frosted-glass advertisement for bière was not the Belle Époque mirror that imagination or the real Bofinger suggested.
Nor was it clear why his book The Spies of Warsaw lost the “the”. Does Spies of Warsaw sound racier, or more modest (just some spies)? Would other films have done better as Gone with Wind; Singin’ in Rain; Good, Bad and Ugly or just Shining?
Anyway, if it was different to have a spy hero who was not English but French, though a bit of an aristo, at least the French spoke with English (not American) accents, leaving the Poles, Germans and Russians in comfortingly foreign cadences.
An old army chum of Mercier’s lamented that now, in their world of espionage, “everything is grey – shadows, secrets”. And yet the viewer was not presented with quite the nuanced doubts of a John le Carré. The big, bad enemies were solid enough, Hitler to the west and Stalin to the east.
In the hurry of the action the interior life of Mercier and Anna Skarbek scarcely had a chance to be explored, but the playing of the minor characters in particular (the driver, the housekeeper) was convincingly understated. And thankfully there was no gratingly anachronistic Downton-speak.
With a cliffhanger of David Tennant stuffed into the boot of a German car (let’s hope it’s bigger inside than it looks on the outside), I look forward to seeing how things are resolved in the second half.