Sunday, June 29, 2008

"The Spies of Warsaw", Allen Furst

This was my first Furst book. It attracted my attention with an advertisement in the June 22 NYT book review section. While I have nothing against popular genre books, I don't often jump in immediately when marketing suggests. Three things, however, attracted me. First, the review comments quoted in the ad were just great. Of course they were idiot, but these were over the top with such statements on Furst's work as "has the ingredients of several genres---the mystery, the historical novel, the espionage thriller, the romance---but it rises above them all" and that was from Jonathan Yardley at the Washington Post. Second, I was coincidentally in the middle of reading "Story of a Secret State", a dense and compelling first person account of the WWII Polish underground, published in 1944 and written by my former government professor at Georgetown, Jan Karski, a hero by any measure. And third, I needed a bedtime read(by my definition a book that is relatively light in content or weight, preferably both) and was fresh out of Donna Leon or Donald Westlake or Lawrence Block or anything like that, and even already done with the latest New York and New Yorker. So I went for the my first Furst.

"The Spies of Warsaw" was interesting in several ways. The historical framework of 1937 Europe on edge with the rise Germany and the uncertainties of alliances was well laid out. The settings: Warsaw, Paris, southwest France, and various cameos of locations in Germany, Switzerland and Czechoslovakia were reliably comfortable. The story moved along briskly. But truth be told, the novel was written as if it were intended to be the basis for a screenplay. The plot ultimately just dissolved into nothing. The characters were caricatures. The interesting information about that period of history, and there was some, was laid out early and then left as a foundation for what turned out to be a structure of events that did in fact have some hackneyed violence, some awkwardly written romance, a touch of that kind of mystery that is only in the hands of the writer, and perhaps a few "thrills" based on a loose definition of that word. I didn't get it.

On page 9 of today's NYT book review there was a full page review of "The Spies of Warsaw" written, maybe appropriately, by the "chief television critic for The Times", Alessandra Stanley. She closes her relatively positive review with the following: "Writers sometimes save the best for first . "The Spies of Warsaw" is not as richly complex as earlier Furst novels, but it is still smarter and more soulful than most espionage novels being written today." So no Graham Greene or John le Carre writing today, but I was one step ahead of Chief Stanley. Having been so perplexed by the difference between what I had read and the praise heaped upon Furst, I followed up a few days ago by picking up and reading another Furst book of renown, "Dark Voyage" with not much better results. That's aside from the fact that if one wants to have a primer for the functioning and layout of a 1930's freighter, there's probably no better place to look than "Dark Voyage", which was called "richly atmospheric...extraordinary...a suspenseful story with a pragmatic, calculating eye" by Janet Maslin of The New York Times.

Furst's books are not without some pace, and some hooks of history and place. That's fine, and I may pick up another sometime when in an airport bookshop looking for distraction. I will know then, however, that when the last page is turned it will ultimately be pointless.

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