Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Polish Officer: Character and Form

At the end of December, I was a house guest and pulled a copy of Alan Furst's The Polish Officer off my host's shelf and read it. I tend not to read historical crime novels or spy thrillers too much. Still, I had heard low-key buzz about Furst for a while, and I'm interested in World War II, so I thought I would give this book a whirl. (Incidentally, I highly recommend the Berlin Noir trilogy, or at least the first book, March Violets by Philip Kerr -- a sort of Philip Marlowe in Berlin tale, with Nazis as gangsters and the corrupt upperclass.)

The Furst book was enjoyable and something of a surprise -- in part because of what it was not. I expected a "high-concept" (e.g., intricately plotted, much at stake), breakneck-paced story of derring-do. Instead, The Polish Officer proceeds episodically: it is divided into five sections that essentially are novellas about the same character, an honorable, lucky, and mild-mannered cartographer (and Polish officer) who operates as a spy and quasi-guerilla soldier. The book also includes a few romances -- the flames of passion fanned by the flames of war. Furst also tells small stories, vignettes, about other characters, and those stories (in their level of detail) are sometimes very tangential to the plot, but still interesting.

The Polish Officer, then, sort of defies demands for tight plotting (which perhaps helps earn Furst his "literary" cache) -- and it succeeds in its descriptive intensity and historical vividness. (I would never try to write such a book simply because of the historical research required -- not dates and facts -- but the details of everyday life generations ago.) Because I don't generally read historical mysteries or spy novels, I won't rush out and read another book by Furst, but I would pluck another one off someone's shelf if I were a housebound guest again.

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