I like spy novels and I have always longingly admired the profession of foreign correspondents. As I finally wanted to read one of Alan Furst‘s spy novels, all set against a historical background, it was therefore natural for me to pick “The Foreign Correspondent”.
It’s 1939 and the main protagonist, Italian émigré Carlo Weisz, works in Paris as a journalist. At night, he and fellow Italian intellectuals are working on an anti-Mussolini underground paper that is being shipped to Italy and distributed there. Mr Weisz also covers the Spanish Civil War and has a female friend in Berlin who somehow (the book remains vague) works against the Nazis.
In a side plot which doesn’t really lead anywhere, Carlo Weisz ghostwrites the autobiography of an Italian commander of a Republican unit in the Spanish Civil War. Asked by his doubtful client if the book will catch anyone’s interest, Mr Weisz replies optimistically “Don’t worry. Your story is so good, it will write itself.”
Apparently, Mr Furst though the same of “The Foreign Correspondent”: Take some émigrés in Paris, make it 1939 in the advent of World War II, add a trip to the Spanish Civil War and a few trips to a Berlin full of Nazis, and you got a great story. – It didn’t work.
Despite all the travel between Barcelona, Paris, Berlin and Turin, not much is happening. Of course there is a civil war and there are some assassinations, but they all fail to connect to one big plot. I kept reading, hoping for it all to come together. It didn’t.
The lack of a plot alone isn’t something to drive me away from a book (after all, Thomas Mann’s “Magic Mountain” is one of my favourite novels and its 700-odd pages are almost exclusively about people talking to each other in a sanatorium), but “The Foreign Correspondent” has neither captivating characters nor impressive prose.
The characters don’t come to life. They are flat. It doesn’t help at all that Mr Furst tries to provide Carlo Weisz with a James-Bond-like love life which is described in far too much detail than I care for in a spy novel. Even Ian Fleming did not do that in his novels (he is not to blame for what happened in the films). What the author misses with his characters, he does too much with places: A café in Paris or a train compartment or a street in Berlin are described in minute detail. In a spy novel, I don’t need this, it just slows me down.
The book is a disappointment. If somebody had taken it away from me while reading it, I would not have cared how the story would progress. It demonstrates how little I was captivated by the book, that I even bothered to check some of the historical facts. Being fully aware between difference of fiction and non-fiction, if as an author you try to make everything authentic, please don’t include mistakes. They cost you the last ounce of credibility. Granted, most of the facts are correct. But the German newspaper “Das Reich” would not have been read in 1939 as it only began publication in 1940. And to put a Wertheim department store in pre-war Berlin is almost cynical, as the (partially Jewish) Wertheim family were victims of “Aryanisation” and were dispossessed of their stores in 1937.
If you want to read a really good spy novel about an émigré living in Paris and stumbling into a pre-World War II spy plot, read “Epitaph for a Spy” by Eric Ambler.