Last night I finished the new Alan Furst book, The Spies of Warsaw. Furst is one of my favorite living authors: I choose his books as dinner companions when I travel, and his work is something of a reference point for me. (For those who don’t know Furst and his work, this is still a good introduction.)
I thought his last book, The Foreign Correspondent, was very entertaining, but had a bit too much of familiar characters and places for my taste. The problem is that Furst has built up a remarkably rich fictional universe– imagine JRR Tolkien or Terry Pratchett without magic– in which places have a lot of resonance and meaning, and part of the pleasure of reading his work is learning more about it. Imagine going to a city you already like and discovering a new cool neighborhood, another excellent restaurant, and becoming a bit more comfortable with the subway: a trip in which you see only familiar sights can be very nice, but lack the pleasure of surprise. (Now that I think about it, the books of his that I reread the least, Dark Voyage and Blood of Victory, take place on the periphery of that world– maybe too far.) So the challenge is to keep expanding that universe, while throwing new light on the familiar parts of it.
Spies of Warsaw manages to hit a very nice balance between familiarity and novelty. There are a couple secondary characters who we meet originally in The Polish Officer or The World at Night, whose back-stories are fleshed out. The main characters are new, and most of the action takes place in Warsaw (where Furst’s earlier books haven’t spent much time), or Germany; Paris makes an appearance, but it isn’t as big a character as it is in some of his other books.
The stakes are also clearer and higher in this book. Without giving too much away, the central character becomes aware that the Wehrmacht is trying to figure out how to conduct blitzkrieg operations through forests– which suggests that Germany is going to try to attack France not by throwing itself against the Maginot Line, but by going through the Ardennes. Normally, Furst’s characters risk their lives for very uncertain stakes: unless they’re trying to save a loved one, they rarely know if the operations they’re involved in will make any difference at all to the war. (The recycling of Furst’s characters runs the risk of making World War II seem like something that was fought by about fifty people; but having his characters operate in worlds that have completely uncertain, and often very ambiguous, outcomes helps create a sense that you’re watching just one of a million little parts of the war, not the central figures whose actions secretly determine the course of the war.) They’re also more war-weary in this book. Maybe it’s because several of the are French veterans of the trenches of World War I; or maybe it’s harder to write a book about war these days without thinking that your characters would be more scarred, and simultaneously more hardened and fearful.
Furst has to write a book set mainly in Budapest now.