Saturday, April 28, 2012

Review: The Foreign Correspondent by Alan Furst (3/5)


I’ve heard good things about Alan Furst’s spy novels.  They’re set almost exclusively in the pre-WWII “rise of fascism” era or during WWII itself and contain immersive detail about the events, politics, and general life of the time period.  I like spy novels.  I like WWII history.  From the sounds of things, it should be just the type of thing to float my boat.  Or trip my trigger.  Or tickle my pickle.  Take your pick.  So when I selected The Foreign Correspondent (Furst’s 2006 entry in his Night Soliders series, now 11 books strong) as one of my audio book reads for my trip down to Orlando last month, I expected to be treated to a riveting tale of WWII espionage, intrigue, and danger. 

But I wasn’t.

Oh, there was espionage, intrigue, and danger—just not enough of it to make the tale riveting.  Actually, it was kind of boring.  The historical aspect was well done and quite interesting, but the plot moved sluggishly, and I kept waiting for a rise in action that never came.  Guess it was a good thing I wasn’t holding my breath.  Let me tell you a little bit about the plot so you can see what I mean.

The protagonist is one Carlo Weisz, a foreign correspondent for the Reuters news agency during the Spring of 1939.  He’s also an Italian émigré  living in Paris, one of the many artists, professors, and intellectuals that were forced to flee Italy when Mussolini and his blackshirts took power.  He and his émigré friends operate one of the many émigré newspapers in Paris, writing propaganda against the Fascisti regime and covertly distributing it back within Italy.  When the editor of the magazine is killed by the Italian secret police, Carlo agrees to take on the editorial duties.  In the meantime, he makes several trips to reporting assignments around the region for Reuters—hot button locales like Spain, Prague, and even Germany itself.  War is looming, the Germans and the Italians have allied themselves in war, and the only question is which spark is going to set off the European powder keg—stuff that makes for entertaining newsprint if nothing else.

Carlo’s travels have two primary outcomes.  They put him in contact with an old lover, a German countess who is involved in resistance activities against the Nazis.  They also get him noticed by the British Secret Service.  Carlo helps both parties (the former willingly, the latter only with heavy-handed coercion).  He helps his lady by smuggling secret documents out of Germany.  He helps the British by writing the biography of an Italian colonel that fought in Spain against Franco and his fascists.  Somewhere along the line he tries to convince the lady to leave Germany, but no dice.  By the time she’s willing to go, it’s too late for her to leave legally and Carlo can’t get her out himself.  Therefore he appeals to the Brits for help.  They strike a deal—Carlo will make an appearance in Italy to rally the home team and increase production on their magazine.  The Brits will exfiltrate the girl.  They huddle, break, and go off to take care of business.

The whole time I kept expecting the slowly mounting tension to explode, to finally get to the high point of the novel where the shit hits the fan, everyone’s running for their lives, and feats of derring-do save the day.  Well, maybe not derring-do.  This ain’t a James Bond flick. But something, y’know?  In the end Carlo goes to Italy for a while, has a few tense moments when he believes he’s being followed by the secret police (but isn’t), and then hitches a ride home with some Swedes.  When he gets to Paris his lady love is waiting for him, and it’s happily ever after—except for that whole impending war thing.

That was my problem with the book overall.  Nothing really happens.  Oh, there’s enough subtle intrigue and foreboding to give an old lady a heart attack, but nothing ever comes of it.  It’s just… kind of boring.  Then again, maybe that’s the point.  Spycraft isn’t all excitement and shootouts and naked chicks.  Real spycraft is long periods of tedious boredom punctuated by heart-racing fear.  Given his attention to historical detail, I guess it’s not surprising that Furst’s novel was more realistic than most—even if it made for a less entertaining book.  And really, how much derring-do can you expect from a journalist whose idea of “fighting back” against fascist oppression is writing some whiny articles? 

What The Foreign Correspondent lacks in excitement, though, it makes up for with nearly everything else.  The novel is amazingly-well researched.  Furst crafts realistic (if somewhat boring) characters and an immersive historical setting using style and language that are measured, understated, and elegant.  I could almost imagine I was back in Paris with Carlo and the rest of the gang.  It was a lot like being thrown into the DeLorean and burning rubber back in time to punch Mussolini in the face.  Or write nasty articles about him.  Same thing.

The Foreign Correspondent wasn’t the most exciting book I’ve ever read, but it had enough of a silver lining to make me glad that I read it nonetheless.  That’s why I give it three stars.






29 comments:

  1. I enjoyed your review, Jonathan.
    Mike

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  2. Thanks, Mike. It's great to hear from you again. Thanks for stopping by the blog.

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  3. The general idea sounds good but it looks like it could have been made more interesting with a few (just two or three) gun shots at the end, like in old black and white movies.

    Furst has written several novels, so maybe one of them has more action whithout ignoring the realistic part.

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    1. There are a lot of people who have really enjoyed Furst's work, so I'm starting to think that maybe I just picked up one of his lesser novels. I'm not ruling out reading another book from Furst.

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  4. I've never heard of this series but it certainly seems like something I'd like. Have you read any of Philip Kerr's books?

    http://www.ManOfLaBook.com

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    1. No, I haven't read anything by Philip Kerr, but I remember reading a review of one of his Bernie Gunther books. Was that yours? I remember thinking that I had to read some of Kerr's work.

      And yes, I'd say this is something you would like very much, even considering the slow moving plot. The historical detail alone is worth the read.

      Thanks for stopping by, Z!

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  5. That's frustrating, when a book is plodding along but seems to be building to something and then... It never happens. That's how I felt about "The Solitude of Prime Number", which is not a spy novel but had a similar lack of climax or catharsis.

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  6. Also, have you read "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle"? I think you would like it.

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    1. it I haven't, but it does sound like something I'd like (thank you wikipedia). It's got it all--classical literature references, muder, mute teenagers, dogs... I'll make sure to pick it up if I ever run across it. Thanks, Erin. Did you read this book recently or something? What made you think of it?

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    2. I was just talking with someone about it the other day. It is one of the best examples of what you described above- slowly mounting tension until shit hits the fan & everyone is running for their lives. It takes a little while to get into but it is worth it.

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  7. Thank you for your honest review of this book. You did an excellent job.

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