By Alan Furst
New York: Random House, 2009
ISBN # 978-0-8129-7737-0
266 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
February 2011

This is an exciting, yet much more realistic spy novel that most I have ever read. At one time in my life, quite a few years ago, I sort of relished the Robert Ludlum-type spy novels. But, eventually the absurdity of them, the excessive amount the bad guys knew about the good guys, and the crazy escapes of the good from the bad just wore out my ability to suspend disbelief and go with the flow.

But this novel by Alan Furst seems really believable to me. Set in 1937-38 in Poland, a French spy makes his rounds of cocktail parties and other gatherings to glean bits and pieces of gossip and information, now and again following up on it in a more formal way.

But he is not a James Bond. Rather he is French Colonel Jean-Francois Mercier, a contemporary of Charles DeGaulle, but much less successful. He is working in Warsaw in 1937. He begins to gather ambiguous data that suggest the Germans, who all know are preparing for war, will not use the same tactics as they did in WWI, attacking frontally.

He comes to suspect they will somehow attack with tanks via forests routes. This is counter-intuitive and not what his superiors want to hear, nor can they easily be persuaded to this seemingly impossible tactic.

Unlike the Robert Ludlums of fiction of the James Bonds of movies, any one of us might be Jean-Francois Mercier. We are not so handsome as Bond, nor as violently successful as Jason Bourne of the Ludlum novels. But, many of us might be as inquisitive, clever and dedicated to duty as Mercier. Thus he is a more realistic model for how to spy!

We follow him as he develops and follows his suspicions, and as he fights with the French central command which regards his ideas as preposterous. Even when he seems to find evidence that his view is correct they choose to write him off as being duped by a scheme of disinformation on the part of the Germans.

No matter the outcome, this is an intelligent, gripping and delightful read. I highly recommend it. Itís not great literature by any means, but it is a fun three or fours days of suspenseful reading.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett