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by Alan Furst
Phoenix, April 2005
352 pages
ISBN: 0753818140

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

THE POLISH OFFICER isn't your usual run-of-the-mill spy novel. For starters, the UK and the US, usually the stock stars in thrillers, are relegated to a more than distant supporting cast. Instead the story focuses, surprise, surprise, on Poland.

The officer of the title is Captain Alexander de Milja. He's recruited by the intelligence service of the Polish underground to transport the country's gold reserves to Bucharest by train. From then, his missions take him from Paris and French villages to the frozen forests of the Ukraine.

I must say at the outset that THE POLISH OFFICER is probably the finest writing I've seen for aeons. The opening of the book is just breathtaking -- I can still picture the image of the sinister armed train going through the station, to the hold-up by Ukrainian bandits, to the image of bloodied but unbowed passengers carrying the gold across the border into Romania.

And the quality continues. Furst, an American who has lived and travelled in Europe, is an absolute master at cameos. In fact, a lot of them are more memorable than our stiff upper-lipped and remote hero. I particularly prized the violinist who helps de Milja defend the gold train, the Dutch East Indies watchman in France, and Janina in Paris who risks her life to transmit messages to England.

One of the factors I found most attractive about THE POLISH OFFICER was that the UK and the US are barely mentioned. This book shows how the war impacted on the rest of Europe, particularly the poorer relations such as Poland. And it shows how war is a slow grind and how it's fought by ordinary people in small rooms.

It's a sedate and stately book, delivered in an understated style with vivid snapshots. My one gripe with it is that it finishes in 1941, having shown us just a slice of the war. Inevitably the reader will want to know what happens to de Milja, a man who has put his country way in front of his private life.

THE POLISH OFFICER was originally published in 1995, and has just been reissued. This is a book that deserves wide recognition. It's spy writing in another class.

Reviewed by Sharon Wheeler, May 2005

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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