'Hollywood Crows' by Joseph Wambaugh; 'The Spies of Warsaw' by Alan Furst

Thrillers offer sex intrigue, puzzles

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"The Spies of Warsaw" by Alan Furst, Random House, $25

Alan Furst's 10th espionage novel set on the eve of World War II is one of his best, offering a subtly drawn, engaging hero, a plot that turns on authentic details of the Nazi plan for blitzkrieg, and one of Furst's most believable love affairs.

The author spins out web after silken web of elegant prose, tangling up his readers in a lost time and place.

The story begins in Warsaw in 1937, where French Col. Jean-Francois Mercier has been posted. He comes from a line of chevaliers -- landed warrior-knights dating back to the 12th century -- and was wounded in World War I and other conflicts. On cold, wet days he walks with an ebony cane with a silver wolf's head to ease the pain of shrapnel in his right leg.

The colonel is a lonely widower until he meets Anna Szarbek, a lawyer for the League of Nations. This being a Furst novel, they have an affair that could melt the ice in the Vistula River.

Professionally, Mercier painstakingly gathers evidence of Germany's plans for war. While the French leadership believes the Maginot Line can stop anything, Mercier realizes that German tanks intend to push through the dense Ardennes Forest in Belgium, north of the French defenses.

As usual, Furst skillfully embroiders his narrative with subplots and reveals an encyclopedic knowledge of the era's history, military and otherwise.

Like Furst's prose, his heroes tend to be refined, civilized and fundamentally decent. They battle uphill against a foe (fascism) that is fundamentally evil. Even though history tells us there won't be victory in the short run, we know (another Furst convention) that his characters will win a skirmish or two and live to fight on.

-- By Peter B. King, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

"Hollywood Crows" by Joseph Wambaugh, Little, Brown, $26.99

Readers who enjoyed Joseph Wambaugh's last novel, "Hollywood Station," will be pleased to read this sequel, although it can be enjoyed as a stand-alone novel.

Wambaugh, an East Pittsburgh native and former Los Angeles police officer, creates another series of vignettes featuring Hollywood street cops and low-life career criminals.

The seemingly unconnected vignettes all lead to a violent confrontation between Ali Aziz, a sleazy strip club owner, and Margot, his estranged ex-stripper wife. That battle draws in "Hollywood Nate" Weiss, the officer who dreams of being a movie star from "Hollywood Station," and Bix Rumstead, a new character who is an LAPD community relations officers (or Crows).

This novel, like Wambaugh's previous 12, is largely character-driven, including a profile of a crack-addicted thief named Leonard Stillwell. Like the Hollywood Crows, this pathetic criminal is drawn into the competing schemes being hatched by the feuding couple.

Although one might think there is nothing funny about drug addiction, greed, murder and suicide, Wambaugh's abundant black humor and social satire will make you laugh -- and think.

-- By Paul Davis, freelance writer


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