The Foreign Correspondent, by Alan Furst

Spies and seduction as the shadow of Fascism spreads over Europe
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Generally speaking, authors hate categorisation and like to think they write novels that don't lend themselves to easy labels. Conversely, bookshops like it: after all, booksellers have to file all these damned books somewhere. But what about readers? If the truth be told, most of us like a little guidance, particularly with a writer new to us. So where do we file the American author Alan Furst? Literary novel? Espionage? Or historical fiction?

Furst's Kingdom of Shadows invoked glowing comparisons with Graham Greene; his idiosyncratic recreation of pre-Second World War Europe had the richness and authenticity of which only the best writers can boast. That novel dealt with the rising tide of Fascism, and represented a new vigour for the espionage tale.

Blood of Victory had the same trenchant scene-setting and felicitous grasp of character, again set in wartime Europe, the territory to which Furst returns in The Foreign Correspondent. His cheeky appropriation of a famous Hitchcock title is misleading; this is a far darker piece of work than Hitch's jeu d'esprit.

The book is set in the feverish period just before the war; the correspondent is Carlo Weisz of Reuters, covering the final campaign of the Spanish Civil War. But a double death at a Paris hotel (a favourite spot for clandestine sexual liaisons) propels him into a new job. The victims are the editor of the Italian émigré newspaper Liberazione and his lover, both murdered by Ovra, the secret police of Mussolini's regime.

Carlo, seduced by the laudable ideology and the romance of the idea, agrees to take over editorship of the paper - and puts himself into a dangerous position. It's equally dangerous to rekindle an old affair in Berlin with Christa, now married to a rich older man. As Carlo becomes a target of the murderous agents of Ovra, the French Sûreté and even British intelligence, political imperatives take second place to the task of simply staying alive.

Furst is an American writer who considers himself European. His literary lineage stretches back to Joseph Conrad - although he can, disappointingly, deal in national stereotypes, such as a Hooray Henry Englishman called Geoffrey Sparrow, given to "toothy har-hars".

But, once again, The Foreign Correspondent is a reminder that the espionage novel - if that's what we're going to call it - can still be a vehicle for fine writing. Furst's audacious reinvention of the genre is a constant delight.