Alan Furst’s much-admired thrillers are set in Continental Europe during the Second World War and the years leading up to it. His heroes are more likely to be journalists, film producers or novelists than professional spies or rugged military types, though the protagonist of Dark Voyage (2004) is a fairly rugged merchant seaman. The hero of The Polish Officer (1995) is, as the title hints, an officer in the Polish army, but rather than being a fighter he works for military intelligence as a cartographer. Many of them are displaced persons, taking refuge from Fascism in countries that have not yet fallen to Hitler. They are ordinary men who under the pressure of extraordinary circumstances are compelled to act like heroes.
No historical novelist can avoid finding himself in conversation, if not competition, with the writers of the period in which his stories take place. Between 1935 and 1940, Eric Ambler wrote six thrillers in which ordinary men – academics, journalists, language teachers, engineers – under the pressure of extraordinary circumstances are compelled to act like heroes. John le Carré once called him ‘the source on which we all draw’. Alan Furst has been drawing on him for nearly twenty years: ‘The first paragraph of Kingdom of Shadows is a direct citation of Eric Ambler,’ he told an interviewer when that novel came out in 2001. ‘It’s nothing but that. It is Eric Ambler. I wrote an Eric Ambler paragraph to begin that book. And I meant for people, if they knew who Eric Ambler was, to look at it and read it in exactly that way.’ Ambler, who died in 1998, was born in 1909 in South-East London. He trained as an engineer, worked as an advertising copywriter, wanted to be a playwright, and wrote his first novel, The Dark Frontier (1936), out of frustration with the then state of the thriller. ‘It was the villains who bothered me most,’ he later wrote in his memoir, Here Lies (1985). ‘Power-crazed or coldly sane, master criminals or old-fashioned professional devils, I no longer believed a word of them.’ As for the hero,
he could be a tweedy fellow with steel-grey eyes and gun pads on both shoulders or a moneyed dandy with a taste for adventure. He could also be a xenophobic ex-officer with a nasty anti-semitic streak. None of that really mattered. All he really needed to function as hero was abysmal stupidity combined with superhuman resourcefulness and unbreakable knuckle bones.
The Dark Frontier started out as a parody of the stories Ambler had such scorn for. Henry Barstow is a mild-mannered, overworked physicist who lives in Wimbledon. While on holiday in the West Country, he has a car accident from which he emerges convinced he is Conway Carruthers, the lantern-jawed hero of a sixth-rate thriller he had glanced through in a pub at lunchtime. In a state of fugue he heads off to Ixania, a sketchily drawn Balkan republic, to thwart the ambitions of a power-hungry countess who is set on building the world’s first nuclear bomb. It’s monumentally silly but, almost despite itself, remarkably gripping.
Ambler’s subsequent novels were more serious, ‘more disciplined’ undertakings, though not lacking in humour. In Uncommon Danger (1937), Kenton, a British freelance journalist who has lost all his money playing dice, agrees to take an envelope across the Austrian border on behalf of a man he meets on the Berlin-Linz train. The envelope turns out to contain material of a highly sensitive nature that a consortium of British oil interests and Romanian Fascists are planning to use in a propaganda campaign designed to bring the latter to power and give valuable drilling rights to the former. The man for whom Kenton is carrying the envelope is killed, and Kenton is soon wanted by the police for his murder. Kidnapped and tortured by agents working for the oil company, he is rescued by a pair of Russian spies, a brother and sister, with whom he joins forces in order to recover the compromising envelope and clear his name.
In bald summary, it sounds almost as silly as The Dark Frontier. But its merits lie less in the movement of its plot than in the pace at which it unfolds; in the careful balance between plain bad luck and his own foolishness in accounting for Kenton’s predicament; and in the edginess of his relationship with the Soviet spies, since they are able to trust each other only so far as their interests coincide. Uncommon Danger is also invigorated by its indignation at the ruthlessness with which big business will pursue its aims regardless of the human and political cost.
The narrator of Epitaph for a Spy (1938), an émigré Hungarian teacher, is arrested in the South of France after a mix-up at the village chemist leads to him collecting, instead of his holiday snaps, a set of incriminating photographs of a secret military installation taken by one of the other guests at his hotel. The book is structured like a traditional English country house murder mystery, but transposed to a hotel on the French Riviera, with a spy instead of a murderer, and an amateur detective who also happens to be the chief suspect. Josef Vadassy is especially vulnerable because, if found guilty, he would be not only imprisoned but, on his release, deported – and ‘if France expelled me there was nowhere else for me to go.’ A victim of the treaty of Trianon and political regimes intolerant of ethnic minorities, he has an out-of-date Yugoslavian passport and no family.
Epitaph for a Spy was followed by Cause for Alarm (1938), The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) and Journey into Fear (1940). Not long after the war started, Ambler stopped writing novels and joined the army (‘But is there anything you can actually do?’ the recruiting officer asked him after learning that he wrote novels for a living). He returned to fiction with Judgment on Deltchev (1951), one of the first great thrillers of the Cold War, in which Foster, a British playwright, is commissioned by an American magazine to cover a Stalinist show trial in an unnamed country in Eastern Europe. In an exquisitely timed series of twists, Deltchev turns out to be a much more complicated figure in a much more complicated situation than the innocent victim of political persecution that Foster at first assumes him to be – and Foster finds himself in serious trouble, having overstepped the bounds between spectator and participant by agreeing to carry out a clandestine errand for Deltchev’s daughter.
Ten more novels followed over the next thirty years. The last, The Care of Time (1981), is the valedictory story of a career criminal who decides that he’s had enough, that it’s time to retire. As time passed, Ambler became less interested in the figure of the innocent abroad who learns that the world is an altogether messier place than he would have liked to believe, and more interested in the morally ambiguous, mercurial characters who played the villains in his earlier novels. The last of Ambler’s decent heroes to get himself into trouble by doing the wrong thing out of naive good intentions is Greg Nilsen in Passage of Arms (1959), a middle-aged American businessman who agrees to help run guns into Indonesia to supply anti-Communist rebels.
Ambler’s protagonists age at more or less the rate he does; his novels are all set at the time in which they were written. The thriller was for him a form in which to address contemporary political events. Uncommon Danger was written in 1936, ‘the year in which Italy invaded Abyssinia’, he reminds us in Here Lies,
civil war broke out in Spain and Hitler ordered the German army to reoccupy the Rhineland. It was a year of yet more refugees and of marriages arranged to confer passports. It was also the year in which the League of Nations was at last seen plainly to be impotent.
Those were the things that I was trying, in my own fictional terms, to write about.
A historical thriller, on the other hand, can always be written with the complacency of hindsight. One of the difficulties a novelist like Alan Furst faces is how to avoid appearing to know better than his characters. A related danger is creating characters who know better than they should, and Furst all too often falls into this trap. His bien pensant heroes can be oddly unpolitical for the late 1930s – not to mention for the protagonists of political thrillers. A woman indulging in a spot of post-coital chit-chat asks Captain Eric DeHaan in Dark Voyage if he is ‘perhaps a bit to the left’. ‘Not much of anything, I’m afraid,’ he replies.
This was no time to talk about the unions, the Comintern, the brutality – the knives and iron pipes – of politics on the docks. ‘I believe in kindness,’ he said. ‘Compassion. We don’t have a party.’
‘You’re a Christian?’ she said. ‘You seem to, ah, like the bed a little too much for that.’
‘Small c perhaps. Actually, as master of a ship I have to give a sermon on Sunday morning. Pure agony, for me, telling people what to do. Be good, you evil bastards, or you’ll fry in hell.’
‘You actually say such things?’
‘I’d rather not, but it’s in the book we use. So, I mumble.’
‘You have a good heart,’ she said, ‘God help you.’
Furst can sometimes seem so keen for his heroes to be right-minded, from an early 21st-century soft liberal point of view, that he forgets to make them interesting.
Carlo Weisz, the protagonist of The Foreign Correspondent, works for Reuters in Paris. Born in Trieste, the son of an ‘eminent ethnologist’, he was educated at the universities of Pisa and Oxford, dropping out of the latter to return to the cafés of his hometown, where friends persuaded him to become a journalist. He began by writing obituaries for a local paper, until his father ‘pulled a string’ and he went off to Milan to work on the Corriere della Sera. After the Fascists took over (the country and the paper), he went back to Trieste, getting by as best he could, eventually leaving for Paris in 1935 when, ‘with Mussolini’s ghastly war in Ethiopia, he could bear it no longer.’
Along with eight or nine other Italian émigrés, Weisz is on the editorial board of Liberazione, a samizdat liberal monthly paper that is published in Paris and smuggled into Italy by train. On 3 December 1938, the editor and his mistress are murdered in a Paris hotel room. Weisz is in Spain at the time, reporting for Reuters on the Republicans’ last stand, but in his absence is selected to be the new editor of Liberazione. It’s surely only a matter of time until the OVRA get him too – if only because one of the editorial board is a Fascist spy. We learn this almost immediately, since we get to read the report that ‘Agent 207’ delivers to a ‘clandestine OVRA station in the Tenth Arrondissement’. But it’s not only the Italian government that’s after Weisz. In Spain he interviews an Italian soldier fighting against Franco, a veteran anti-Fascist who goes by the nom de guerre of Colonel Ferrara. The ensuing article is read by British intelligence, who spring Ferrara from an internment camp in the South of France in March 1939 and take him to Paris, where Weisz is hired to ghost-write his autobiography for use as propaganda.
Weisz is approached by the British shortly after returning from Berlin, where he had been sent for a fortnight to fill in while the regular Germany correspondent was on his honeymoon. He takes the opportunity to look up an old flame, Christa Zameny, who has been married for three years. They fall straight into bed with each other. Furst’s protagonists never have any difficulty getting laid: the world they move in is full of easygoing and sex-hungry women who don’t appear to have anything better to do than hang about in hotel rooms without any clothes on waiting for the hero to show up. They then spend most of the night having coyly described but unquestionably sophisticated sex before drifting off to sleep just before dawn. The women also have a strange habit of conforming to national stereotype in the bedroom: Weisz’s Parisian girlfriend, who runs an art gallery, is afflicted by a ‘Frenchwoman’s soul demanding that he find consolation in making love to her’.
Christa isn’t only a soft-porn diva: she’s a member of a resistance organisation too. She introduces Weisz to a man in a park who gives him a list of German agents in Italy, which if published could cause problems for Hitler and Mussolini’s relationship. With the list in his pocket, Weisz nips down to Prague, just in time to watch the Wehrmacht march into the Czech capital, before heading back to Paris, having failed to persuade Christa to escape with him. Liberazione announces that the list exists but doesn’t publish the names, because that would be too dangerous for the editors. It’s not enough to prevent Count Ciano going to Germany to sign the Pact of Steel on 22 May 1939. Weisz flies back to Berlin to cover the event for Reuters, finding time for more great sex with Christa (‘“God,” she said, “how I love this.” He could tell that she did’) and failing once again to persuade her to leave with him.
Back in Paris, yet again, Weisz is relieved to find that a sinister man who’d been staying in a room down the hall at his hotel has moved out. With Colonel Ferrara’s autobiography completed, and the Pact of Steel signed, the British intelligence services have another job for Weisz: they’ve decided to fund Liberazione and expand its operation. They want to increase the print run ten-fold, however, and the only way to do that is to print it inside Italy, since smuggling twenty thousand copies of a newspaper over a border on a train would be simply impossible. Someone has to go to Italy to set the operation up: and that someone, of course, is Weisz. He agrees, on one condition: that the British spring Christa from Germany.
It’s about this point that The Foreign Correspondent starts to get exciting. The trouble is, we are by now only thirty pages from the end. So the story of Weisz’s return to Italy, which ought to take up the bulk of the narrative – the account of a physically dangerous and emotionally difficult journey to a homeland that has become hostile territory – is instead a brisk finale to a hopelessly top-heavy novel, the bulk of which is given over to setting things up. The identity of the spy among Liberazione’s editors is now revealed, but since he’s not one of the major characters, the revelation barely qualifies as such: we knew one of them was a spy, and it turns out that one of them was a spy. Christa is brought out of Germany by the same agent who retrieved Ferrara from internment (and who before that was last seen slipping off a ship at a Latvian port in Dark Voyage). S. Kolb is mysterious and resourceful, and not afraid to act outside the bounds of conventional morality, but we know he’s a good guy at heart because we’re told, when he arrives in Berlin: ‘How he hated these horrible fucking Nazis!’
Back in Paris, Weisz is reunited with Christa, and the curtain falls as they’re about to get down to some more of that very special sex they have with each other. The impending war lends an element of dramatic irony to the story, but since Weisz is by now in the employ not only of Reuters but also of British intelligence, he and Christa surely won’t have much difficulty in skipping town once the Germans march in.
The excitement of a good thriller depends in part on there being certain constraints of space and time: some variation, crudely speaking, on the idea of a man locked in a room with a ticking bomb. There should also be some character development and at least one plot twist: the man at first tries shouting for help, then gives up in despair, and at last realises he can use the bomb to blast open the door while protecting himself from the explosion by constructing a makeshift shelter out of the furniture. Furst’s novels, however, tend to drift along for several months, if not years, while his characters flit about Europe with such ease – Weisz goes from Paris to Barcelona to Paris to Berlin to Prague to Paris to Genoa to Paris – that they might as well be flying Ryanair. I.A. Serebin, the hero of Blood of Victory, is a Russian writer. His itinerary – it could almost be a publicity tour – takes in Constanta, Istanbul, Paris, St Moritz, Paris, Bucharest, Constanta, Bucharest, Paris, Belgrade, then down the Danube by boat for the exciting and overdue finale. Dark Voyage advertises itself as being set in the Baltic: DeHaan’s ship at last passes through the Skaggerak minefields four-fifths of the way through the novel, and the last fifth is properly gripping – but it comes too late, after far too much toing and froing in the Mediterranean and North Atlantic. The stories are diffuse where they should be concentrated, and dilatory when they should be compressed. As for character development, Weisz is a world-weary yet romantic hack playing his small part in the struggle against Fascism at the outset, and by the end – well, Furst’s heroes are nothing if not reliable.
Compare The Foreign Correspondent with Ambler’s Cause for Alarm (1938), which also turns on German-Italian relations in the run-up to war. Nicholas Marlow, a young British engineer, loses his job on the day he proposes to his girlfriend. After several weeks of trying with increasing desperation to find new employment, he accepts, not without misgivings, and with the disapproval of a socialist friend, a position in the Milan office of a British firm which manufactures machines that make artillery shells. In Milan, he is approached by a spy who claims to be Yugoslavian and asks for information about the firm’s contribution to Italy’s rearmament programme. Soon afterwards, another spy, who claims to be American but may well be Russian, tells him that the first spy is in fact working for the Nazis, and that he should supply him with false information. Marlow, whose predecessor was not only involved in espionage but murdered, at first wants nothing to do with these people, but a roughing-up at the hands of Fascist thugs changes his mind. Caught up in a tangle of espionage and counter-espionage, he eventually falls foul of the authorities, and trapped on the wrong side of a continent rolling towards war, with a price on his head, he has to flee. The last third of the novel is taken up by an impressively sustained and exhilarating chase across northern Italy. Marlow learns the hard way that personal, business and political loyalties are often in conflict with each other, and that sometimes there is no way of making an unambiguously right choice.
In Erskine Childers’s The Riddle of the Sands (1903), the first great spy novel of the 20th century, the hero falls inconveniently in love with the daughter of his deadly opponent, and appears as a result to be faced with an unsolvable dilemma. On this model, The Foreign Correspondent would have been an immeasurably better book had Christa turned out to be working, however unwillingly or unwittingly, for the Nazis. Everything comes implausibly easily to Furst’s characters, whether it’s sex, frontier-hopping or doing the right thing. It’s true that in these novels one person’s actions never make much difference in the grand scheme of things – Furst’s heroes never save the world – and in this respect they are, as thrillers go, more plausible than most. But this isn’t enough to save them from being dull.