It's no surprise to anyone these days that a life in the world of international espionage isn't all it's cracked up to be. Even James Bond, so long a symbol of globe-trotting, bed-hopping exuberance, has to deal with as much angst as action, and authors like John Le Carré spent decades describing the tragedy of a system where treating individuals as pawns isn't so much a failing as a necessity. Alan Furst is no stranger to the genre, and in his newest book, The Spies Of Warsaw, he mixes historical fact and fiction to tell the story of one man trying to do his best while caught in the cogs of the political machine. It's just that in this case, the machine involves a lot of pleasant dinners, reasonable romances, and minor inconveniences.
Set in Warsaw a scant two years before the Nazis invaded Poland, Spies focuses on Colonel Jean-François Mercier, a veteran of the Great War currently serving as a French attaché in Warsaw. Mercier runs a sideline in obtaining information on German military equipment and strategy, and when one of his agents is nearly killed, Mercier becomes involved in determining the intentions of a series of tank maneuvers that may herald an attack. As Mercier works to uncover the truth as well as ensure that his higher-ups will listen to it, he attracts the attention of the SS, and is drawn into a love affair with a nearly married woman. It's a great deal of strain for any one battle-weary, pragmatic Frenchman.
Or is it? Theoretically at least, Spies should have some built-in tension due to its place in time; knowing just how serious all the hints and riddles Mercier stumbles across really are makes his decisions on what to do next—and how those decisions can't stop the inevitable—potentially rife with dramatic irony. But Furst fails to exploit this. Spies is a quick read, but it never really goes anywhere, in spite of its setting and history. It lacks a sense of conflict, being more a series of incidents than actual plot, and while the hero is likeable enough, there isn't enough to him to warrant the time spent. In literature, a spy's exploits can be explosive or tedious; Furst makes the mistake of combining the two, with pleasant but forgettable results.