I started Alan Furst’s The Foreign Correspondent with a bias – John Le Carré has remained the only spy novelist who can reel me in and keep me captivated for the necessarily complex plots of espionage and intercontinental betrayal. No matter how many other I try, I find a flaw that keeps Le Carré on the throne – here, a hero too swashbucklingly Bondian to feel realistic; there, a plot too intricate to really be readable to a humble magazine editor (and not an espionage buff or a history major). Furst’s fascinating and subtly stylish novel, though, is a close contender.
Carlo Weisz is our reluctant hero – a newspaperman caught in the accelerating cogs and wheels of 1939 Europe. An Italian and an anti-fascist, his foray into the spy business is almost incidental. As a member of a small resistance group based in Paris, he takes the reigns of their newspaper Liberazione when the prior editor meets a nasty fate at the hands of Mussolini’s fascist secret police. As a snowball effect, he becomes involved with the French national police and the British Secret Intelligence Service, but the involvement that most matters to him is the love of his life, working her doomed resistance in the eye of the hurricane – Berlin.
What I found pleasing in Furst’s novel is the element of human decision and action which is neither grandiose gestures nor the daredevil stuff of Hollywood spies. As the Italian resistance group in Genoa shows us, Furst lets his characters make their day-to-day decisions on what they can live with at the end of the day; action taken friend-to-friend, word-of-mouth, to listen to their consciences. A resistance newspaper exists because a few people don’t mind turning their eyes at the printing plant, because young teens choose to drop copies on park benches and in bathrooms. Furst writes these small movements, these small moments, with a subtle style and with a clear historical dedication to the zeitgeist of pre-WWII Europe. It is his most masterful stroke in the novel, worthy of the comparison to Le Carré.
To be fair, the novel doesn’t always read like a spy story. There aren’t many hushed conversations in anonymous rooms of government, there aren’t dead letter boxes or lamplighters or defections. Only towards the end, in a segment where Weisz is doing some real spy work in Italy itself, does the daily movements of espionage come to the surface and I found it one of the weaker sections of the novel. I understood the attention to minute details but I found myself wanted to trip past it, whereas Furst’s attention to Weisz’s movements in Paris, when he was deciding things by the seat of his pants, I found more gripping.
The romantic angle, too, was subtly threaded through the year in which Furst writes. Weisz and his relationship with the German Christa von Shirren building from a comfortable love affair into the driving force behind Weisz’s decisions seems to parallel the rise in seriousness of the Mussolini/Hitler relationship and the inevitable decline to war in Europe. It’s well-written and well-escalated – both the drama of the love affair and the drumbeats of war growing louder.
Another strength of Furst’s is his cast of characters, who all play their roles in Weisz’s life sometimes with more panache and style than the deliberate and quiet Weisz himself. Colonel Ferrara as the determined Italian soldier finding his place after losing Spain to Franco, Arturo Salamone as the memorably well-drawn leader of the resistance in Paris. Women, even including the feisty von Shirring, are thin on the ground in Furst’s world – which would be a complaint if it didn’t so strikingly echo the atmosphere in the chambers of power at the time. It feels, very much, like a man's game.
What I take most from spy novels is their ability to be gripping and enjoyable on a difficult, subtle playing field – possibly, along with mysteries, one of the most elusively complex genres to perfect. My criteria for a success in the field are almost absurd, when I want it to be entertaining but nitpickingly realistic, well-written characters in a packed plot that rarely leaves room for internal reflection. But Furst does it with restrained flair, if that isn’t too mixed of a description. It’s exactly what a good spy novel needs.
Hardcover: 288 pages
Publisher: Random House (May 30, 2006)