Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


The Foreign Correspondent by Alan Furst




(Mildly Recommended)




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Alan Furst continues to focus his skills as a novelist on espionage in Europe in the 1930s. His latest book, The Foreign Correspondent, contains those elements that have garnered accolades for Furst: close attention to detailed descriptions; the creation of characters and setting that become compelling; and a restraint that contains the action. Unlike his earlier novels, The Foreign Correspondent’s main characters fail to develop enough to bond with readers. Halfway through the book, I found myself not caring what happened. There’s a boredom that can settle in because of the restraint on action, and that spread to the characters themselves. Here’s an excerpt, pp. 62-66:


12 February. The request—it was an order, of course—arrived as a telephone message in his mailbox at the office. The secretary who’d taken the message gave him a certain look when he came in that morning. So what’s all this? Not that he would tell her, not that she had any business asking, and it was only a momentary look, but a longish, concentrated sort of a moment. And she watched him as he read it—his presence required at Room 10, at the Sureté Nationale, at eight the following morning. What did she think, that he would tremble? Break out in a cold sweat?

He did neither, but he felt it, in the pit of the stomach. The 511 reté was the national security police—what did they want? He put the slip of paper in his pocket, and, one foot in front of the other, got through his day. Later that morning, he made up a reason to stop by Delahanty’s office. Had the secretary told him? But Delahanty said nothing, and acted as he always did. Did he? Or was there, some­thing? Leaving early for lunch, he called Salamone from a pay phone in a café, but Salamone was at work, and, beyond “Well, be careful,” couldn’t say much. That night, he took Véronique to the ballet—balcony seats, but they could see—and for supper after­ward. Véronique was attentive, bright and talkative, and one didn’t ask men what was wrong. They hadn’t talked to her, had they? He considered asking, but the right moment never came. Walking home, it wouldn’t leave him alone; he made up questions, tried to answer them, then tried again.

At ten of eight the next morning, he walked up the avenue de Marigny to the Interior Ministry on the rue des Saussaies. Massive and gray, the building stretched to the horizon and rose above him; here lived the little gods in little rooms, the gods of émigré fate, who could have you put on a train, back to wherever it was, back to whatever awaited you.

A clerk led him to Room 10—a long table, a few chairs, a hissing steam radiator, a high window behind a grille. A powerful presence, in Room 10: the smell of cooked paint and stale cigarette smoke, but mostly the smell of sweat, like a gymnasium. They made him wait, of course, it was 9:20 before they showed up, dossiers in hand. There was something about the young one, in his twenties, Weisz thought, that suggested the word probationary. The older one was a cop, grizzled and slumped, with eyes that had seen everything.

Formal and correct, they introduced themselves and spread their dossiers out. Inspector Pompon, the younger one, his boiled white shirt gleaming like the sun, led the interrogation, and wrote out Weisz’s answers on a printed form. After sifting through the partic­ulars, date of birth, address, employment, arrival in France—all of that from the dossier—he asked Weisz if he’d known Enrico Bottini.

“Yes, we were acquainted.”

“Good friends?”

“Friends, I would say.”

“Did you ever meet his paramour, Madame LaCroix?”


“Perhaps he spoke of her.”

“Not to me.”

“Do you know, Monsieur Weisz, why you are here today?”

“In fact, I don’t know.”

“This investigation would normally be conducted by the local Prefecture, but we have interested ourselves in it because it involves the family of an individual who serves in the national government. So, we are concerned with the, ah, political implications. Of the murder/suicide. Is that clear?”

Weisz said it was. And it was, though French was not his native language, and answering questions at the Sureté was not the same as chatting with Devoisin or telling Véronique he liked her perfume. Fortunately, Pompon took considerable pleasure in the sound of his own voice, mellow and precise, and that slowed him down to a point where Weisz, working hard, could pretty much understand every word.

Pompon put Weisz’s dossier aside, opened another, and hunted around for what he wanted. Weisz could see the impression of an of­ficial stamp, made with a red ink pad, at the upper corner of each page. “Was your friend Bottini left-handed, Monsieur Weisz?”

Weisz thought it over. “I don’t know,” he said. “I never noticed that he was.”

“And how would you describe his political affiliation?”

“He was a political émigré, from Italy, so I would describe his politics as antifascist.”

Pompon wrote down the answer, his careful hand the product of a school system that spent endless hours on penmanship. “Of the left, would you say?”

“Of the center.”

“You discussed politics?”

“In a general way, when it came up.”

“Have you heard of a newspaper, a clandestine publication, that is called Liberazione?”

“Yes. An opposition newspaper distributed in Italy.”

“Have you read it?”

“No, I’ve seen others, the ones published in Paris.”

“But not Liberazione.”


“And Bottini’s relationship to this newspaper?”

“I wouldn’t know. He never mentioned it.”

“Would you describe Bottini? What sort of man he was?”

“Very proud, sure of himself. Sensitive to slights, I would say, and conscious of his—do you say ‘standing’? His place in the scheme of things. He had been a prominent lawyer, in Turin, and was always a lawyer, even as a friend.”

“Meaning what, precisely?”

Weisz thought for a moment. “If there was an argument, even a friendly argument, he still liked to win it.”

“Was he, would you say, capable of violence?”

“No, I think that violence, to him, meant failure, a loss, a loss of . . .”


“He believed in words, discourse, rationality. Violence, to him, was a, how to say, descent, a descent to the level of, well, beasts.”

“But he murdered his paramour. Was it, do you think, romantic passion that drove him to do such a thing?”

“I don’t believe that.”

“What then?”

“I suspect this crime was a double murder, not a murder/suicide.”

“Committed by whom, Monsieur Weisz?”

“By operatives of the Italian government.”

“An assassination, then.”


“With no concern that one of the victims was the wife of an im­portant French politician.”

“No, I don’t think they cared.”

“Was Bottini, then, to your way of thinking, the primary victim?”

“I believe he was, yes.”

“Why do you believe that?”

“I think it had to do with his involvement in the antifascist opposition.”

“Why him, Monsieur Weisz? There are others in Paris. Quite a number.”

“I don’t know why,” Weisz said. It was very hot in the room, Weisz felt a bead of sweat run from beneath his arm down to the edge of his undershirt.

“As an émigré, Monsieur Weisz, what is your opinion of France?”

“I have always liked it here, and that was true long before I emigrated.”

“What exactly is it that you like?”

“I would say,” he paused, then said, “the tradition of individual freedom has always been strong here, and I enjoy the culture, and Paris is, is everything that’s said of it. One is privileged to live here.”

“You are aware that there are disputes between us—Italy claims Corsica, Tunisia, and Nice—so if, regrettably, your native country and your adopted country were to go to war, what would you do then?”

“Well, I wouldn’t leave.”

“Would you serve a foreign country, against your native land?”

“Today,” Weisz said, “I don’t know how to answer that. My hope is for change in the government of Italy, and peace between both nations. Really, if ever there were two countries who ought not to go to war, that would be Italy and France.”

“And would you be willing to put such ideals to work? To work for what you believe should be harmony between these two na­tions?”

Oh fuck you. “Truly, I cannot imagine what I could do, to help. It all takes place high up, these difficulties. Between our countries.”

Pompon almost smiled, started to speak, to attack, but his col­league, very quietly, cleared his throat. “We appreciate your candor, Monsieur Weisz. Not so easy, these politics. Perhaps you’re one of those who in his heart thinks that wars should be settled by diplo­mats in their underwear, fighting with brooms.”

Weisz smiled, intensely grateful. “I’d pay to watch it, yes.”

“Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. Too bad, eh? By the way, speaking of diplomats, I wonder if you’ve heard, as a journal­ist, that an Italian official, from the embassy here, has been sent home. Persona non grata, I believe that’s the phrase.”

“I hadn’t heard.”

“No? You’re sure? Well, maybe a communiqué wasn’t issued— that’s not up to us, down here in the trenches, but I’m told it did happen.”

“I didn’t know,” Weisz said. “Nothing came to Reuters.”

The cop shrugged. “Then better keep it under your hat, eh?”

“I will,” Weisz said.

“Much obliged,” the cop said.

Pompon closed his file. “I think that’s all, for today,” he said. “Of course we’ll be speaking with you again.”


For those readers who find this place and time in history interesting, and especially for fans of spy novels, The Foreign Correspondent will provide fine reading pleasure. General readers may find the action to be too slowly paced to maintain attention throughout. Those who admire the ability to place a reader in a particular place through detailed descriptive language will love The Foreign Correspondent.


Steve Hopkins, July 26, 2006



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the August 2006 issue of Executive Times


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