The book opens in Warsaw in 1937. Hitler is in control of Germany, but World War II has not yet begun. Furst begins by painting a picture of a secret agent, Edvard Uhl, a married ironworks engineer from Breslau whose affair with “Countess Sczelenska” leads to his involvement in espionage. Uhl, whose identity as an agent is discovered early on in the book, is not a major character, but he introduces readers to Colonel Jean-Francois Mercier, a veteran of the Great War and the military attaché at the French embassy in Warsaw. Mercier used Uhl to get information on the tanks being built by the Germans, but when the Nazi police gets wind of Uhl’s activities, Mercier must risk his own life to gather information about the Nazis' plans for war.
Furst shows Mercier at the numerous dinners and other social events he must attend for his job, suffering through them though he’d rather be elsewhere. It is at these events that readers learn of important political maneuverings and get a taste of Polish high society before the war. While the scenes in which Mercier is under cover are exciting, The Spies of Warsaw is not all politics and war. Mercier falls in love with a League of Nations lawyer, Anna, so there’s some sex and romance thrown in, too.
Furst is a talented writer, and his use of description brilliantly sets the scene. Here’s a passage from the beginning of the book where Mercier is shown to readers:
Turning slowly in the shower, Mercier was tall – a little over six feet, with just the faintest suggestion of a slouch, an apology for height – and lean; well muscled in the legs and shoulders and well scarred all over. On the outside of his right knee, a patch of read, welted skin – some shrapnel still in there, they told him – and sometimes, on damp, cold days, he walked with a stick. On the left side of his chest, a three-inch white furrow; on the back of his left calf, a burn scar; running along the inside of his right wrist, a poorly sutured tear made by barbed wire; and, on his back, just below his left shoulder blade, the puckered wound of a sniper’s bullet. From the last, he should not have recovered, but he had, which left him better off than most of the class of 1912 at the Saint-Cyr military academy, who rested beneath white crosses in the fields of northeast France. (page 15)Here’s another passage that shows Furst’s expertise at building tension and writing action:
…Suddenly, from somewhere to the right of the tower, a light went on, its beam probing the darkness, sweeping past them, then returning. By then, they were both flat on the ground. From the direction of the light, a shout, “Halt!” Then, in German, “Stand up!”I must admit that my lack of spy and military knowledge made it hard for me to understand some of the goings on in The Spies of Warsaw on the first read. I found myself re-reading certain paragraphs until I felt I had things straight, but that’s okay because the novel is one to be read slowly and savored – despite the fact that Furst had me on the edge of my seat, wanting to turn the pages quickly to find out what happens.
Mercier and Marek looked at each other. In Marek’s hands, a Radom automatic, aimed toward the voice, and the light, which now went out. Stand up? Mercier thought. Surrender? A sheepish admission of who they were? Phone calls to the French embassy in Berlin? As Marek watched, Mercier drew the pistol from his pocket and braced it in the crook of his elbow. The light went on again, moving as its bearer came toward them. It was Marek who fired first, but Mercier was only an instant behind him, aiming at the light, the pistol bucking twice in his hand. Then he rolled – fast – away from Marek, away from the location of the shots. Out in the darkness, the light went off, a voice said, “Ach,” then swore, and a responding volley snapped the air above his head. Something stung the side of his face, and, when he tried to aim again, the afterimages of the muzzle flares, orange lights, floated before his eyes. He ran a hand over the skin below his temple and peered at it; no blood, just dirt. (page 70)
The Spies of Warsaw is the 16th book I've read for the WWII reading challenge at War Through the Generations.
If you think The Spies of Warsaw sounds like an exciting read, you’re in luck! I have one copy to give away. All you have to do is leave a comment (hopefully saying more than just “enter me”). Be sure to include your email address if it’s not in your profile. I must have a way to contact you if you win.
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The giveaway is open internationally and will end on Sunday, August 9, at 11:59 EST.
You can read an excerpt from The Spies of Warsaw by clicking on the book tour button.
Disclosure: I received a free copy of The Spies of Warsaw from Random House for review purposes.