Alan Furst admits he's "not entirely clear" on how he came to be the pre-eminent American writer of World War II spy novels. Beginning with Night Soldiers in 1988, the former journalist has written nine critically acclaimed espionage novels, including his latest, The Foreign Correspondent.
As the grandson of Jewish immigrants growing up in Manhattan, the only spy novels Furst read were by Eric Ambler and Ian Fleming, escapist fare with little grounding in reality. Then, on a 1983 travel story assignment for Esquire, he visited the Soviet Union, his ancestral home, for the first time.
"It was an enormous epiphany for me," Furst says by phone from his apartment in Paris. "I was back where I'd come from and there wasn't any question about that." Furst was frustrated that the Russians dictated when and where he could travel, all with the goal of converting his American dollars into rubles. "I had no desire to go to Moscow; the Russians made you go. If you wanted to go to the Danube, they wouldn't let you go there. My whole life turned on them being such jerks about it."
The intrigue of finding himself in a police state lingered long after that trip; it lingers today, in fact.
"It really hit me like a wind and it wasn't subtle at all," he says. "During World War II, everyone, in Europe at least, thought this might be it, that this was about as much life as they were going to have, and that changes things, especially romantic relationships. And it's right now, immediate, like maybe I'm not going to be here Thursday."
It is Furst's foremost intention, and his greatest gift, to so snugly settle us into the shoes of his characters that we get night sweats waiting for the knock of leather-gloved hands on the door.
In his compact, atmospheric new novel The Foreign Correspondent, Furst embeds us into the web of intrigue that surrounds Carlo Weisz, who, like thousands of Italian journalists, lawyers and intellectuals, fled Mussolini's Italy in 1938 and established a beachfront of the Italian resistance in Paris. When Mussolini's secret police murder the editor of the resistance's underground newspaper Liberazione, Weisz is chosen to replace him. But his covert duties become increasingly hazardous when his day job with Reuters takes him to Berlin during the Nazi ramp-up for war. There, he rekindles a love affair with an old flame whose anti-Nazi friends have volatile information that could burn both the monstrous Mussolini and the Italy Weisz hopes to preserve.
There is a lovely, chilling scene early on when Weisz meets with the unctuous Dr. Martz, Hitler's Minister of Propaganda, over coffee and babka. A jovial glad-hander who once portrayed European buffoons in Hollywood movies, Martz assures Weisz that all the Nazis want from the media is "fair play," especially regarding recent assaults by those unreasonable Poles on innocent, peace-loving Germans.
"[Martz] says, 'Look, we're just asking that our story be told honorably. We have that right, don't we?'" Furst explains. "S—, man, it's the Nazis! But Weisz has to sit for a moment and think, how can I deny this guy what he's asking me? It's very hard to do that because you're raised to believe that it's honorable to give people a chance to speak and present their case and try to be fair."
"When I write these books, the question is always being asked: What would you do [in that situation]?" Furst admits. "Think about all the pressure—pressure from people you know and respect and who like you—and now you have to perform. You don't have to do it; you could say oh, this is too dangerous, I don't want to get involved. But I don't think Weisz was able to say that."
As with Furst's previous spy novels, The Foreign Correspondent examines a slice of European history between 1922 and 1945 from the perspective of a particular vocation that had an impact on WWII.
"I write about vocations, and always have. It frustrates me sometimes in novels where you have a character and you don't find out anything about going to work because, for all of us, a lot of the day is how we're going to make money to pay for this human life," Furst says.
Surprisingly, though, "I've never, ever written about a professional spy as hero," Furst says. " I don't know that I could do it realistically enough. [John] Le Carré, who is experienced, was able to do it brilliantly."
In contrast to his epic earlier works, The Foreign Correspondent is a sprint; short, fast and executed with the elegance of a pro writing at his peak.
"I started life trying to write huge, panoramic, fat books for people to take on long, long airplane rides. Now I want to write more concentrated stuff with narrower walls," he says. "I became extremely interested in what has been called the European existential novel, which is always short, always about one person, and about one sequence of events concentrated over a period of a few months. I like all that kind of thing, all those timeframes and all the ways that books work in that way."
Furst says living in Europe for more than two decades has been seminal to his spycraft.
"It more than contributes; it's central. We have this apartment on a little narrow street where d'Artagnan supposedly lived at one time, and at night everybody closes their shutters. I was just turning the lights off and some man or woman walked up the street and what I heard were footsteps on cobblestones. You never would hear that in America. It wasn't so much that it was filled with intrigue but there was something about it that was so 60 or 70 years ago as it echoed up off the sides of the buildings. That goes on every day and every night here for me in different ways."
Jay MacDonald is a writer in Oxford, Mississippi.