Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst

Before picking up The Spies of Warsaw, I had never read a spy novel. My interest in World War II literature drew me to Alan Furst’s latest novel, and after flipping through to the last pages and noticing that most of his novels involve espionage and either the Nazis or the Soviet secret police, I was hoping The Spies of Warsaw would be good because I wanted to check out his other books. I wasn’t disappointed.

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!”

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)
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.


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.

For extra entries, you can blog about the giveaway, post it in your sidebar, mention it on Twitter, and let me know the link and/or tell me the name of the best spy novel you’ve read so far.

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.


Serena said...

Wow, sounds like you really enjoyed this novel. I think I'd like the opportunity to read it, and I will definitely post it in my sidebar.

Best spy novel? I have not a clue since I haven't read any.

savvyverseandwit AT gmail DOT com

I will tweet too if you like

Serena said...

I tweeted the giveaway! @annaeccentric

Lezlie said...

I have seen a lot of good things about this author. I meant to try one for the WTTG Challenge, but never got to it. Another "someday"!


Jo-Jo said...

This looks like a great one that I would love to win Anna. I've posted it on my sidebare here and I will blog about it tomorrow.
joannelong74 AT gmail DOT com

bermudaonion said...

I don't have much military knowledge either but I do love a good spy novel. I think I got interested in them after my mother told me she always wanted to be a spy when she was growing up. milou2ster(at)

Blodeuedd said...

Oh cool, yes I'd love to give it a try.

blodeuedd1 at gmail dot com

Can't say that i have a wide knowledge of the spy business, would be fun to know some more

Pam said...

Oooh - espionage...I always thought it would be fun to be a spy...

The Tiger Claw by Shawna Singh Baldwin was a good spy novel. Then of course there are all the Bourne books...

melacan at hotmail dot com

Bridget said...

Sounds like a great spy book. No need to enter me; just stopping by to say I've posted this on Win A Book.

Anonymous said...

I used to read spy novels, but it's been awhile. This looks good though. I'd love to be entered.
As far as best spy novel, how about the James Bond books or the Bourne series. Or the Day of the Jackal?

carolsnotebook at yahoo dot com

Keyo said...

i am a girl with a spy heart! even as a little girl..i used to play spy games with spy gadgets that me and my dad would make! sigh..lovely days of the past!

neways. my point is that i am all into spy stuff. Books, movies, novels, gadgets. i would love to read this. pls count me in.

Keyo said...


i am blogging bout this on my right side bar.


Lenore Appelhans said...

I haven't read too many spy novels, but I've enjoyed the ones I have. There is just so much inherent excitement in spying, isn't there?

Sandy Nawrot said...

I REALLY enjoyed this book. My post for the tour is up Friday. I was new to the spy novel genre, but if this is any indication of what they're like, count me in. Don't know if you saw Furst's interview on You Tube, but he seems like a very down-to-earth guy!

Sue said...

I love WWII era books. I haven't read a spy novel in several years, but loved The Bourne Identity. Thanks for the giveaway~
s.mickelson at gmail dot com

tetewa said...

I'd like to be included!

wheresmyrain said...

i really enjoy historical fiction like this. Hope to get a chance to read it. thank you
wheresmyrain at yahoo dot com

Book Escape said...

This sounds like a good book, but it's not really my "type." However, I think my husband would love it, so please enter me!

Alyce said...

I love World War II books, and even though I haven't read a whole lot of spy novels, I'd like to give this one a shot.

akreese (at) hotmail (dot) com

Jessica ( frellathon ) said...

This sounds just like the kind of book my mother and I would enjoy. Please count me in for your giveaway. Thanks.

Mozi Esme said...

Would love to learn more about WWII in an entertaining way!

janemaritz at yahoo dot com

Linda said...

I've never read anything by Alan Furst, but here lately I've run across his name on several blogs. And since I enjoy WWII novels, I'd love to win this book.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

Thanks for the review. This is not a book I would normally select, but you wrote such a great review I may consider it.

nfmgirl said...

This was my favorite type of a book when I was a teen, and I'd love to try it again. Please count me in!

nfmgirl AT gmail DOT com

nfmgirl said...

I tweeted:

nfmgirl AT gmail DOT com

nfmgirl said...

I don't know whether it really counts as a "spy" story, but it's in the same arena. I really enjoyed Dan Brown's Digital Fortress, which had to do with spying and code-breaking and the like.

nfmgirl AT gmail DOT com

Bookfool said...

I love WWII/Spy books. My favorite spy books are all by Len Deighton:

Berlin Game
Mexico Set
London Match

Spy Hook
Spy Line
Spy Sinker


Love the characters. Bernard Samson was, I guess, the protagonist. He's a great character. Charity ended the "series" (although Deighton wrote them for years, the same main characters - at least, many of them - remained in all of those books). I cried a river at the end of the series.

bookfoolery at yahoo dot com

Marie said...

This sounds great!

My husband likes the Bond books but I'd rather read the Bourne books myself :-)

Esme said...

This is so up my ally-although I thought the same about The Traitor's Wife

I love WW11 books

xo E.

chocolateandcroissants at yahoo dot com

Shoshana said...

I didn't enjoy spy books until I read Tom Clancy's one book. Hunt for Red October. Then I graduated to Robert Ludlum...and now I am hooked.

Count me in the drawings, please.

unsealmylip at gmail dot com

Anonymous said...

This book fascinates me because I love reading WWII stories (both fiction and non-fiction). Please enter my name in your draw.
wandanamgreb (at) gmail (dot) com

Gwendolyn B. said...

It's been a long time since I've read a good spy novel, but I remember being really caught up in THE 39 STEPS by John Buchan.

I've never read any of Furst's books, and I'd love to start with this one! Thanks for the chance.

geebee.reads AT gmail DoT com

Gwendolyn B. said...

Here's my blog post:

geebee.reads AT gmail DOT com

mrsshukra said...

Alan Furst is a new author for me but I'm intrigued by the WWII setting and with the element of romance amidst the political and spy story, The Spies of Warsaw sounds like an even more exciting read.


Unknown said...

Looks like a good book, please enter me into this drawing.

Thanks for hosting this giveaway.

Unknown said...

I've also blogged about this giveaway here.


Marjorie/cenya2 said...

I am a new follower and would love to win this book. The review sounds excellent.

cenya2 at hotmail dot com

chocowafer said...

It does sound exciting! I haven't really read a spy novel but I'd like to try this one. :) Please count me in on the giveaway. :)

linked this on my sidebar:


Kaye said...

This sounds like such a good one. I don't know why I am drawn to WWII books but I am. My hubby would like this one too, I think. Sign me up, please.


Lisa said...

I haven't read a good spy novel in a long time but used to really enjoy them. No idea why I stopped. It's time to start again. My favorite was a John le Carre--I think it was "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy."

nfmgirl said...

I blogged it:

MurderMysteryMayhem said...

I just finished reading Rebecca Cantrell's A Trace of Smoke and this would be a great follow up.

Loved your detailed review..

Please enter me..LooseEnds At Snet Dot Net

Unknown said...

Sounds like a really good book.

Best spy novels are without a doubt the John LeCarre books about George Smiley that really begin with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Wonderful, engrossing, & well-written!

The Reading Momster said...

Wow! Spy novel ~ never read them really. I really need to correct this!

And would be a fine book for the WW2 challenge :D

Enter me! I have blogged on my sidebar! Come and see :)

Hope you are well rested ;)

holdenj said...

I really enjoy WWII espionage books and this looks likes a great historical thriller. It would be my first Furst as well!


JHolden955 (at) gmail (dot) com

Gram said...

Alan Furst's novel are supposed to not only be very good, but also historically accurate. I loved Francis Beeding's novels and a few others, so am looking forward to reading this one.

CherylS22 said...

I love to read spy novels from WWII - actually, I like reading any novels from WWII. This was an important time in history & should never be forgotten. The history is kept alive through books.

Please count me in - Thanks!

CherylS22 said...

The best spy novels I've read so far are the Gabriel Allon series by Daniel Silva - Moscow Rules, The Secret Servant, The Messenger, Prince Of Fire, etc.


Anonymous said...

I posted this on my blog, too.

carolsnotebook at yahoo dot com

Strangelove said...

Well, the theme is great, but if it wasn't for the magnificent cover, i don't think I would stop and consider this book.
But even more, with a giveaway, I will try it definetly!

carlos_durao AT hotmail DOT com

Eduardo Antunes said...

I really don't have much to say, except for "thanks" and "great passages"!
One more trying it's luck.

Jafantunes said...

I have been reading both fiction and non-fiction on WWII for several years now.
There is so much great information to be found and to be reflected on, so much still to understand and discover!
And this one ooks like a good read!

o_rei_de_havana AT hotmail DOT com

MariaD said...

This will make for a great read!
The passages you quoted were amazingly written, the cover is beautiful and the title is intriging!


Caty said...

This will be a great add to my own library!
Thank you for offering it!
Best regards!


Susana Ricardo said...

These kind of giveaways are always a good way to risk discovering a new genre or a new author.
And training my english in the process.

Best regards from Portugal!

Joana Dias said...

Found your blog through this giveaway and I'm becoming a fan!
Don't know if I deserve winning the book, bu I will try!

Sara said...

I would never voluntarily pick up a spy novel until I saw The Bourne Idendity. Somehow my crush on Matt Damon transferred into my actually picking up the book. As I read the later in the series I still picture Damon. I think I might enjoy this even more due to the historical twist, so it is just a question of who to mentally cast in Mercier's role. Thanks!

skkmiller (at) live (dot) com

Misusedinnocence said...

I would love to read this. :)

Esme said...


cococroissants giveaway for The Spies of Warsaw.

chocolateandcroissants at yahoo dot com

Anna said...

This giveaway is now closed. Thanks to everyone who entered, blogged or tweeted about the giveaway, and suggested a spy novel for me to consider. I really appreciate it. I will choose the winner using and announce his/her name soon.

Unknown said...


Thanks for sharing.

Anna said...

Leather Diaries: Thanks for stopping by!