The mysterious appeal of Alan Furst's 'historical espionage' novels
Like all of its predecessors, The Spies of Warsaw (Random House, U.S. publication date June 3, 2008), Alan Furst’s tenth novel in the genre he calls “historical espionage” is set on the Continent either on the eve of, or in the early days of, the Second World War.
It is a profoundly satisfying spy story in which nothing of moment happens: Jean-François Mercier de Boutillon, a French military attaché based in Warsaw, in 1937 and 1938 runs a series of operations against Germany, uncovering clues to the military techniques and plans that will crush his country in May of 1940. The reader learns what he almost certainly knew before opening the book, which is that the Germans are experimenting with massed tanks coordinated with aircraft, and are practicing moving armor through forests. What Mercier uncovers will be ignored, another thing we know before we open the book, so the recurring pleasures provided by Furst’s extremely satisfying fictions are in one sense something of a puzzle.
The historical espionage genre necessarily sacrifices much of the suspense a contemporary setting creates: after all, we know who won the Second World War. Furst’s novels chronicle attempts to avert the war, or inform the Western Allies of the military threat the Nazis pose, thus sacrificing more suspense, because we know that the Allies will be catastrophically surprised in the Battle of France, just as Stalin was later catastrophically surprised by the invasion of the Soviet Union.
If that weren’t risky enough, none of Furst’s protagonists have been killed in his previous books, and his readers have no reason to expect any change in the rules. Over the course of ten novels, only in the first two do Furst’s spies undergo political or psychological revelations, and when they do, it is about the nature of Stalinism, so the novels sacrifice another possible pleasure.
Mercier is a wounded and decorated veteran, as are many of Furst’s characters, so there is little suspense about how these people will react to the discovery of what war, or its equivalent, is really like. While the early novels are wonderful on what Le Carre taught his readers to call tradecraft, that alone cannot account for the pleasure Furst provides—his readers have probably already read Le Carre, and have in most cases already read Furst.
So why do the books continue to delight so many readers? Until the current volume, where the protagonist is a serving officer of a still-sovereign state, one reason the books are so satisfying is because their heroes are people who have made a peculiarly impressive choice. They face dreadful danger only because they have deliberately chosen to involve themselves in resistance movements, and they have done so when the odds against an Allied victory seemed less than encouraging. The risks—torture and, at the end, a very bad death at the hands of the Gestapo—are horrific, but the stakes are as high as stakes can get: the prospect of a Nazi victory.
Furst seems to know that with the great exceptions of code-breaking and strategic deception, most Allied intelligence operations changed relatively little about the war’s course and outcome. Nevertheless, risking all to make a ghastly outcome even a little less probable remains an urgent choice: the novels assume, with neither argument nor pontification, that nothing has ever mattered more.
Other historical espionage novelists, some of them often compared to Furst—for example, Joseph Kanon—specialize in blurring the moral standing of the war’s eventual victors. But Furst doesn’t seem interested in blurring the moral standing of the Allied victors, with the crucial exception of Stalin’s Soviet Union. Moreover, even in the case of Stalin’s Soviet Union, Furst appears to share the verdict memorably expressed by the great military historian Omar Bartov, when reviewing a book famed for the breadth of its sympathies for all who fought at Stalingrad: One army had invaded the country of the other, seeking to murder many and enslave the remainder of its citizens; therefore any great sympathy for Hitler’s army risks perversity.
At a guess, Furst’s readers and the novelist himself share a belief that the people who stopped Hitler deserve imperishable glory—that they are, in the most morally compelling sense of the word, heroes. Brecht’s Galileo remarked that “Unhappy is the land that needs heroes.” This is one great truth, but it elides others, and on the evidence of Furst’s commercial and aesthetic success, heroes of his sort are the people many of us want to read about.
Indeed, if so many of us did not wholeheartedly admire the heroes of the Second World War, there would probably be fewer books insisting that the Allied strategic bombing campaign was simple murder, or that Hiroshima must be paired with Auschwitz: passionate blasphemy requires at least the living memory of piety.
In any case, Furst’s heroes differ from one another in social and national circumstances: Mercier, a professional soldier and aristocrat, could not in these respects differ more from the Russian Jewish Bolshevik hero of Dark Star, or from the Bulgarian Communist peasant hero of Night Soldiers, published in 1988, and the first of the series. What they all have in common is the free choice to risk so much, made when it was by no means clear that Hitler could be stopped (Night Soldiers runs past VE Day, but Furst has never been very interested in the latter half of the war, and as his series has gone on, his interests have shifted to the years when the war has not yet broken out).
Furst’s heroes are almost never British or American, which means they come from countries that have been or will be conquered. They are all Continentals, living in an age when Britain was not imagined to be part of the Continent, and in a geographical (and perhaps other senses), wasn’t, as the Third Reich would pretty swiftly discover. A contemporary dictionary tersely defined a sea lion, as Peter Fleming wittily observed, as a carnivore very imperfectly adapted to a marine environment, and that imperfect adaptation meant that Britons and Americans were spared certain choices history forced on Continentals. Most of Furst’s novels celebrate the ones who made an extraordinarily difficult choice.
The Spies of Warsaw, the first novel in the series not to do that, does something else: it reminds its readers fact that while intelligence services can succeed in gathering the facts, military and political elites can refuse to break with their preconceptions, and that if men and women are sufficiently unlucky, truly ghastly things will follow.
May of 1940 remains an infinitely compelling moment because it reminds posterity that military innovation can alter the course of history, allowing the new and monstrous to overthrow the normal and civilized. In this sense, Furst’s tenth book describes the origins of the books that preceded it: it describes how Continentals became so unlucky that they needed heroes.