The Polish Officer is a spy story by Alan Furst centring around the intelligence activities of an officer in the Polish armed forces over a period of roughly two years from the invasion of Poland by Germany in 1939. His activities take him around Europe in a series of missions aimed at undermining the occupying forces of Germany and the Soviet Union before Germany turned against its temporary ally in June 1941.
Although Poland was overwhelmed by the German and Soviet division of its territories, the Polish government in exile in the UK proved to be active and energetic in its continued fight against the invaders. Part of this effort involved using its skilled intelligence services to provide high grade intelligence and assistance to countries such as France and the UK, which were still at war with Germany. Polish cryptographers, for example, had made important breakthroughs in unlocking the early German Enigma codes long before Britain's intelligence service had come to recognise its importance.
The story however is not an ordinary thriller but an intimate account which relates how Captain Alexander de Milja's personal life is shaped by his dangerous work, as he is moved about Europe on different missions. Surprises and plot twists are few, but each phase offers excitement, new characters and an informed and interesting viewpoint through which to look at the early part of WWII. In some ways, I felt there was always some distance between the reader and the main character. You learn more about him through his own interactions with people than reading his thoughts, but the character is sympathetic and you are behind him from the first page. What stands out is how well Furst engages you with the character despite this slightly arms-length treatment. De Milja is, despite his charisma and talents, still very human and the text includes some dry humour which helps to keep you onside.
The end of the book may not give you the closure you expect from a standard thriller, but it is has a lighter and more intimate touch than most, which is refreshing and is carried very well by the leading character. The background story of espionage by Poles who had already seen their country dismembered by the two most powerful forces in continental Europe, is one of ingenuity, courage and understated finesse which offers a new and interesting viewpoint on the early part of the war. It's a thoughtful and intelligent account of one man's war and a people's struggle against overwhelming odds in which love, humanity and sacrifice are set against the cruelty of war.
I will definitely be looking for more Alan Furst on RISI.