On the Brink
A reporter in Paris evades the Italian secret police as the Nazi threat gathers force.

Reviewed by Justin Ewers
Sunday, July 2, 2006


A Novel

By Alan Furst

Random House. 273 pp. $24.95

The fall of 1938 is giving way to bleak winter, and, as always with Alan Furst, the Continent's murderous fascists are up to no good. Hitler has taken the Sudetenland. The shattered glass of Kristallnacht has been swept away. Mussolini struts on the balconies of Rome. In six months, the Pact of Steel will be signed. France and Britain do nothing.

Life in Europe, in other words, is grim. And in his new novel, The Foreign Correspondent , his ninth set in the gray dawn of World War II, Furst again proves himself a master at exposing how each taut nerve frays in anticipation of the conflicts to come. His cast is a hardy group of ?migr?s, Italian anti-fascists who have fled to Paris to escape Il Duce's thugs. They meet in drafty caf?s and the backrooms of bars, publishing a clandestine newspaper called Liberazione that is shipped, covertly, back into Italy. Theirs is one of more than 500 such papers published in Paris at the time. Like the stories of Graham Greene and John le Carr? before him, Furst's yarn spins best in history's forgotten corners.

He begins with murder. The editor of Liberazione is shot dead, along with his mistress. The motives are murky. The killers belong to a shadowy division of the Italian secret police, the OVRA. The crime is made to look like a lovers' quarrel, but few will believe that. "It was for them that this event had been staged," Furst writes, "the ones who would know immediately that this was politics, not passion."

Carlo Weisz, an Italian ?migr? who works as a foreign correspondent for Reuters, is nominated to take over the paper. Cue the theme of noir's unwilling anti-hero. Weisz is in the mountains of Spain, covering the last throes of the Republican resistance against Franco, and he is pure Furst: world-weary, just past 40, a man whose friends, if he can call them that, are waiters, bartenders and spies.

Weisz's politics have left him with only the simplest of pleasures: a good caf?, the memory of a Tuscan breeze and women, who move in and out of his days like the tide. "She was playful," Furst writes of the receptionist in Weisz's building, "but she'd let him know that her black dress could, at some point, be removed, and that beneath it lay a lovely treat for a good boy like him." Weisz's heart, though, is spoken for: a long-ago lover, Christa van Schirren, a memory now, married and living in Berlin.

As he takes up the reins of the little Italian paper, this scratched-together existence begins to come apart. The OVRA targets him. Brooding inspectors and elegant spies alternately court and threaten him, sweeping him up in their political machinations. He is ordered to the Interior Ministry. "Massive, and gray," writes Furst, "here lived the little gods in little rooms, the gods of ?migr? fate, who could have you put on a train, back to wherever it was, back to whatever awaited you." Weisz realizes his place: He is a pawn. His lover is in danger in Germany. Should he stay and fight or trust his instincts and slip away?

As he was in such bestsellers as Blood of Victory and Dark Voyage , Furst is a maestro of minimalism. Humor is never free of sarcasm. "Costly, this business we're in," Weisz tells a colleague when he learns one of their friends has been killed. Emotions, meanwhile, are felt off the page, never on it. After years apart, Weisz waits for Christa in the Hotel Adlon bar. The doors swing open. "Not so long after that, maybe fifteen minutes," writes Furst, "a waiter approached the table, collected a large tip, half a cognac, and half a champagne cocktail."

Which isn't to say Furst's book lacks drama. There are no gun battles or car chases, and no one drinks a martini, shaken or stirred. Instead, the story hangs on the anticipation of the unknown. As Europe teeters on the brink of catastrophe, so, too, does Weisz. Every step could be his last. A car carrying illegal newspapers gets stuck in the snow. He thinks he's being followed into the metro. His arms sweat during interrogation. There is a knock at the door. Europe -- Weisz and his friends know -- will soon burn. ?

Justin Ewers is a senior editor of U.S. News & World Report.

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