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'The Spies of Warsaw,' by Alan Furst

During the war years in the Balkans, on those chilly nights when you counted your blessings if you had a portable generator that provided enough light to read by, Alan Furst's spy novels offered pleasant diversion for many a foreign correspondent.

Furst, a New Yorker, was almost unknown in his native land during the 1990s, but his sophisticated stories of espionage attracted a strong cult following in Britain, and he was particularly popular with the crowd of journalists who saw him as a kindred spirit and admired his eye for the illuminating detail.

Although it was difficult to find his books in your local Borders, they did turn up in the oddest places.

Furst, who was in Chicago recently, recalled a phone call from fellow writer and former Oberlin College classmate Geoffrey Ward.

"You'll never guess where I'm calling from," said Ward, who was calling from Peshawar, the rough and dusty Pakistani city on the Afghan frontier, famous for its open-air arms bazaar. "I wish I had a camera."

Ward went on to tell Furst that he was standing outside a gun merchant's stall where a well-thumbed copy of Furst's 1991 novel, "Dark Star," was being offered for sale alongside the rows of Kalashnikovs and piles of hand grenades.

By the mid-1990s, Furst was appearing regularly on London best-seller lists but still laboring in obscurity in the U.S.

"My paperbacks had to be imported to the U.S. from the U.K.," he said. "Then all of a sudden, 'Kingdom of Shadows' in 2000—that was the breakthrough in the U.S.," That novel, his sixth, made The New York Times' best-seller list, as have the three that followed it.

These days Furst and his elegant style are well-known enough to be featured in an Absolut Vodka ad. ("The bottle was waiting on a brass tray. Absolut, he saw. It had been iced, the glass opaque with frost . . . ")

In reviews, Furst is often described as the author of "spy thrillers." The label causes him to cringe slightly.

"They are not thrillers; they are not spy novels. They are novels that have spies as characters," he said. "You won't find any violent chase scenes in my books. I don't have scenes where the hero confronts the villain on the edge of a cliff."

Not so much Ian Fleming, much more Graham Greene and Eric Ambler, Furst is the master of subtly etched but deeply flawed character, the perfectly set scene, the wry irony.

"In the dying light of an autumn day in 1937, a certain Herr Edvard Uhl, a secret agent, descended from the first-class railway carriage in the city of Warsaw. Above the city, the sky was at war; the last of the sun struck blood-red embers of massed black cloud, while the clear horizon to the west was the color of blue ice." Thus begins his latest novel, "The Spies of Warsaw," a story set in the twilight years of the interwar period when Adolf Hitler's ambitions were manifestly apparent, but Europe chose to avert its gaze.

The stage is Poland, and Furst captures it down to the smallest detail—the postage stamps: "Very pretty, they were, the two-groszy issue, blue and gold, with a handsomely engraved portrait of Chopin."

He even works to get the smell right: "The two room apartment in a worker's district was scrupulously clean—cleanliness being the Polish antidote to poverty—and smelled of medicine."

At the other end of the social spectrum, Furst takes us to the affluent suburb of Milanowek, "a garden in a pine forest, twenty miles from Warsaw, famous for its resin-scented air—'mahogany air,' the joke went, because it was expensive to live there and breath it."

Furst's Warsaw is populated with a cosmopolitan crowd of diplomats, spies, journalists and businessmen, many characters wearing two hats or more as they hustle to find a safe perch in a Europe beginning to crumble beneath their feet.

Back then the Polish capital's social hierarchy was immensely complex and richly textured. It would never recover from the battering it took during World War II. But Furst, a kind of literary anthropologist, imagines its essence with knowing acuity. There is one particularly telling scene in which three low-level Nazi thugs, enjoying a taste of Warsaw's nightlife ahead of some planned skullduggery, find themselves momentarily intimidated by the city's Jews:

". . . Jews in sharp suits, with slicked down hair, began to appear, well known in the club, greeted heartily. They looked sideways at the three Germans, and one of them whispered with the girl who'd sat on Willi's knees.

"Voss sniffed the air and said, 'It's starting to not smell so good in here.'

" 'Time to move on,' Meino said.

"They tried one more place, the Hairych, on Nalewki Street, but there they overheard the gangster types talking about them in Yiddish."

The inhabitants of Furst's shadow world have little in common with James Bond. They tend to be nervous, twitchy men, opportunists on the make or down on their luck, idealists turned realist, or men whose drab lives advertise a weakness for women or money or flattery.

There are, of course, a few noble heroes. Furst fans will recall Alexander de Milja, the protagonist in "The Polish Officer," which many consider to be Furst's finest novel, or Jean Casson, the Parisian film director in "The World at Night" who risks all for his sense of decency. In "The Spies of Warsaw," the hero is Jean-Francois Mercier, the aristocratic military attach� at the French Embassy in Warsaw, a veteran of World War I and a colleague of Charles de Gaulle's and Henri Petain's.

France and Britain have pledged to aid Poland if it is attacked by Germany, but as the gray clouds of war gather, Mercier has a deeper insight into the characters of the political leadership. He tells his Polish counterpart:

"You know what I think, Anton. If the worst happens, and it starts again, you must be prepared to stand alone."

What makes Furst's books particularly rewarding is that each is a history lesson. All are set between 1933 and 1942.

"It begins with the ascent of Hitler and ends with Stalingrad, in 1942, when sophisticated people in Europe understood that Germany was finished," he said.

"I do a phenomenal amount of research. I do it every step of the way. I read all of the history written about that time, and I read all of the history written at the time—those are two very different things," Furst explained.

Some of his best sources are the long-out-of-print memoirs of long-forgotten foreign correspondents.

"With foreign correspondents back then, it seemed that wherever they were posted they always wrote a book when they left, and it was always called 'The Fire in Bucharest,' or 'The Fire in Berlin,' and it always warned about the coming war," he said.

One possible reason for Furst's early popularity among journalists is that many seemed to think he was one of them. Certainly he knew how to live the life. And he also knew how to fill his notebooks with the kind of detail correspondents so admire in each other's work.

Although he once spent a year as a columnist for the Paris-based International Herald Tribune and used to contribute travel pieces to Esquire, Furst said he has never been a foreign correspondent and never considered himself a journalist.

"I don't call myself a journalist because I honor the profession. It's a hard profession, journalism, and what I do is easy," said Furst, who divides his time between Sag Harbor, N.Y. and Paris.

His writing, he explained, is informed by extensive reading and deep research. "But not as much on-the-scene [research] as you might think."

He traveled to Warsaw to research his latest book and stayed at the Bristol Hotel, a century-old landmark that has been gloriously resurrected by the Meridien chain.

"The kind of place where you can order fresh Baltic herring and ask the barman to bring his four best vodkas," Furst said.

The Bristol is across the street of the enormous Hotel Europejski, a place with even more history but a long run of bad luck. No big European or American chain has come to its rescue; it remains a down-market dump.

"I stayed at Bristol, but I knew to write about the Europejski—I think that sums me up pretty well," Furst said with a laugh. The fresh herring and vodka make their appearance on Page 75.

Furst, who toiled long years in obscurity, now is at the top of his game and "The Spies of Warsaw" ranks among his best. As promised, there are no Hollywood chase scenes, no poison-tipped umbrellas. Just the humdrum work of espionage and the moral ambiguity that accompanies it.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun