Three sentences into Kingdom of Shadows, you are already traveling deep in Alan Furst's world--a dark, sharply etched, pre-war Europe, electric with menace: "On March 10, 1938, the night train from Budapest pulled into the Gare du Nord... There were storms in the Ruhr Valley and down through Picardy and the sides of the wagons-lits glistened with rain. In the station at Vienna, a brick had been thrown at the window of the first-class compartment, leaving a frosted star in the glass." In six novels, beginning with the revelatory, intricate Night Soldiers--one of the richest spy books ever written--Furst has packed his brooding geography of the '30s and '40s with Nazi spymasters, Soviet assassins, Balkan bandits, rioting Fascists and ordinary neighbors turned slippery and vicious by fear. The Furstian hero, as with Kingdom of Shadows's Hungarian aristocrat Nicolas Morath, operates under the grinding pressure of imminent violence with too little information and too few decent choices. Though he's American, Furst has so far created a far bigger splash in England than back home, perhaps because he has removed America almost entirely from the stage, favoring instead the exiled and occupied of France and Central Europe, characters he seems to know from some intimate bone-knowledge. Think Le Carre without the binary certainties of the Cold War. With his two most recent books, Kingdom of Shadows and The Polish Officer, finally available here in paperback this fall, Alan Furst should begin getting his due as the most literate and inspired American writing espionage novels today.
Beautifully written, powerfully imagined, and riveting as pure story..The book is a triumph.
Brilliantly imagined, vividly drawn, rich with incident and detail..The Polish Officer portrays ordinary men and women caught out on the sharp edge of military intelligence operations in wartime: the partisans, saboteurs, resistance fighters and idealistic volunteers risking their lives in causes that seem lost.
[A] riveting ‘pure’ story..wonderfully exact..transcends the spy novel while delivering everything any fan of le Carré could ask for.
Brilliant...you can almost hear the chained wheels of the Gestapo car on the snow, the whack of bullets in the moonlit Polish forests, the quietness of occupied Paris by night.
One of the best novels of the year....Brilliant.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
With clear, reticent prose and his trademark mastery of historical detail, Furst (Shadow Trade; Night Soldiers) brings vividly to life this WWII-era tale of espionage and bravery, chronicling the work of the Polish underground in Poland, France and the Ukraine. As Warsaw is falling in 1939, Polish Captain Alexander de Milja embarks on a harrowing journey to smuggle the national gold reserves out of the country by rail-the first of many death-defying missions he will undertake for the nascent ZWZ, the Union for Armed Struggle. Under a series of false identities, mingling with the bon vivants of occupied Paris, he later becomes a prized intelligence resource in France, surviving by cunning and passing valuable strategic information to the British. In the novel's final section, de Milja is in even more danger, working as a saboteur based in a Ukrainian forest as the Germans march east. Throughout these dramatic events, Furst's understated narrative is insightful and convincing. The unassuming de Milja-who considers himself merely ``unafraid to die, and lucky so far''-proves an engaging protagonist. His exploits and the courageous sacrifices of the ordinary patriots who help him are both thrilling and at times inspiring. (Feb.)
Capt. Alexander de Milja is a chameleon. A cartographer by profession, de Milja works as an intelligence officer in the Polish underground at the outset of World War II. When the Germans discover de Milja's identity in Poland, he goes to France and later Russia to continue his work. De Milja's disguises are many-he passes as a Russian writer, a Czech coal merchant, and a Polish horse breeder-and he embraces each persona completely as he goes about the business of espionage and sabotage. De Milja comes across as a genuine individual who, in his weaker moments, grapples with his desire to give up the fight. This well-written, realistic novel by the author of A Distant War (LJ 10/1/94) paints a vivid picture of the grayness and despair of the German occupation. Recommended for larger public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 10/1/94.]-Maria A. Perez-Stable, Western Michigan Univ. Libs., Kalamazoo
After its dismemberment in 1939, Poland had precious few officers, but those who survived the blitzkrieg carried on the war underground or in exile. Furst creates one such man, Captain Alexander de Milja. Relying more on period detail than on the plot (which ultimately fizzles out) in depicting the tense life of a spy and the delicacy of maintaining one's cover, Furst writes like a confident crafter of the genre, as he has done previously (e.g., "Dark Star", 1991). Here, Captain de Milja, whose polyglot background and fluency in languages lend him the protean ability to change his identity, runs agents in Warsaw, Paris, the Pas de Calais, and the Ukraine. In each of these places, he ducks as the Nazi tidal wave passes, resumes contact with his superiors in the Polish intelligence organization, assumes a new pose, then cautiously noses around for information about the "Wehrmacht", a traitor in his own ranks. No mere drudge, de Milja manages an amorous conquest everywhere he goes, and each woman brings out another side to his world-weary demeanor. This accurate, descriptive portrait compensates for the story's abrupt suspension when de Milja joins the Ukrainian partisans. Presumably, his fate will unfold in a sequel.
From the Publisher
"Beautifully written, powerfully imagined, and riveting as pure story....The book is a triumph."
"Brilliantly imagined, vividly drawn, rich with incident and detail....The Polish Officer portrays ordinary men and women caught out on the sharp edge of military intelligence operations in wartime: the partisans, saboteurs, resistance fighters and idealistic volunteers risking their lives in causes that seem lost."
Robert Chatain, Chicago Tribune
"[A] riveting ‘pure’ story...wonderfully exact...transcends the spy novel while delivering everything any fan of le Carré could ask for."
Robin Winks, The Boston Globe
Read an Excerpt
The Pilava Local
In Poland, on the night of 11 September 1939, Wehrmacht scout and commando units–elements of Kuechler’s Third Army Corps–moved silently around the defenses of Novy Dvor, crossed the Vistula over the partly demolished Jablonka Bridge, and attempted to capture the Warsaw Telephone Exchange at the northern edge of the city. Meeting unexpected, and stubborn, resistance, they retreated along Sowacki Street and established positions on the roof and in the lobby of the Hotel Franconia, called for dive-bomber attacks on the exchange building, and settled in to wait for the light of dawn.
Mr. Felix Malek, proprietor of the Franconia, put on his best blue suit, and, accompanied by a room-service waiter, personally served cognac to the German soldiers at their mortar and machine-gun positions. He then descended to the wine cellar, opened the concealed door to an underground passage originally dug during the Prussian attack of 1795, hurried down Sowacki Street to the telephone exchange, and asked to see “the gentleman in charge.”
He was taken up a marble staircase to the director’s office on the fifth floor and there, beneath a somber portrait of the director–pince-nez and brushed whiskers–presented to the officer in command, a captain. The captain was an excellent listener, and the questions he asked inspired Mr. Malek to talk for a long time. Arms, unit size, insignia, the location of positions–he was surprised at how much he knew.
When he was done, they gave him tea. He asked if he might remain at the exchange, it would be an honor to fight the Germans. No, they said, perhaps another day. So Mr. Malek made his way through the night to his sister’s apartment in the Ochota district. “And what,” she asked, “were they like?”
Mr. Malek thought a moment. “Educated,” he said. “Quite the better class of people.”
Mr. Malek had not been thirty years an innkeeper for nothing: the defenders of the Warsaw Telephone Exchange, hastily recruited amidst the chaos of the German invasion, were officers of Polish Military Intelligence, known, in imitation of the French custom, as the Deuxième Bureau. The Breda machine gun at the casement window was served by a lieutenant from the cryptographic service, a pair of spectacles folded carefully in his breast pocket. The spidery fellow reloading ammunition belts was, in vocational life, a connoisseur of the senior civil service of the U.S.S.R., while the commander of the machine gun, feet propped on the tripod, was Lieutenant Karlinski, heavy and pink, who in normal times concerned himself with the analysis of Baltic shipping.
The officer in charge, Captain Alexander de Milja, was professionally a cartographer; first a mapmaker, later assistant director of the bureau’s Geographical Section. But Poland was at war–no, Poland had lost her war, and it was clear to the captain that nobody was going to be assistant director of anything for a long time to come.
Still, you couldn’t just stop fighting. Captain de Milja stood at the open window; the night air, cool and damp, felt especially good on his hands. Idiot! He’d grabbed the overheated barrel of the machine gun to change it during the attack, and now he had red stripes on his palms that hurt like hell.
4:20 a.m. He swept the façade of the hotel with his binoculars, tried–based on the proprietor’s intelligence–counting up floors to focus on certain rooms, but the Germans had the windows shut and all he could see was black glass. In Sowacki Square, a burned-out trolley, and the body of a Wehrmacht trooper, like a bundle of rags accidentally left in a doorway, weapon and ammunition long gone. To somebody’s attic. De Milja let the binoculars hang on their strap and stared out into the city.
A refinery had been set on fire; a tower of heavy smoke rolled majestically into the sky and the clouds glowed a faint orange. A machine gun tapped in the distance, a plane droned overhead, artillery rumbled across the river. War–fire and smoke–had made autumn come early, dead leaves rattled along the cobblestones and caught in the iron drain covers.
Captain de Milja was a soldier, he knew he didn’t have long to live. And, in truth, he didn’t care. He was not in love with life. One or two things had to be taken care of, then matters could run their course.
The director’s telephone was, naturally, of the very latest style; black, shiny, Bakelite plastic. De Milja dialed the military operator he had installed in the basement.
“Sergeant, have you tried Tarnopol again?”
“Can’t get through, sir. I’ve been up to Wilno, and down to Zakopane, just about every routing there is, but the whole region’s down. We’re pretty sure the lines have been cut, sir.”
“You’ll keep trying.”
“Thank you, Sergeant.”
He replaced the receiver carefully on its cradle. He had wanted to say good-bye to his wife.
From the Trade Paperback edition.