Too often for their own good, novels about private eyes and reporters speak in a common voice. The hero is grumpy, an existentialist of sorts, meaning that he wakes up hung over and alone in a hotel room. He is gruff, lonely and on the downside towards decay.
Can you imagine, by contrast, a book about a foreign correspondent, opportunity for a word with the wife and kids? Take my word for it, such people exist.
The trouble with "Foreign Matter" by Time magazine writer Christopher Byron is that it's a central-casting and the sort of intrigue he encounters abroad. There is nothing in the way of surprises in the protagonist, the villains, such as they are, or the mysterious beauty with whom our hero (Alexander Montogomery of Globe, a weekly magazine) dallies on a Greek isle. Formulas abound.
But if Byron's actors were B-movie cutouts and the plot were terrific, that would probably be fine. What makes a book like this read well is not so much the characterization (too much psycho-probing gets in the way of a page-turner) but the plot. What happens to all those stereotypes is what makes them interesting.
What goes on here just isn't that gripping. The climax lfet me wondering what the fuss leading up to it was all about.
In a time of turbulence in Iran, Afghanistan and the rest of the Near and Middle East, the tensions decribed in "Foreign Matter" -- the enmity between Greece and Turkey, the Cyprus question, the rebellious Kurdish tribesmen and oil -- are relevant enough. Yet it doesn't come together as a compelling whole. All the elements are there (toss in the CIA and some governmental unrest) but the mix is bland.
So why read "Foreign Matter?"
Much of the atmosphere is good. Byron knows his colleagues and has a way with the lingua francas of journalism. Bravado over boozy dinners with a lot of talk about past stories and who wrote them are staple fare of correspondents, and Byron plainly knows the scene.
His account of the life of stringers -- partime correspondents -- in a capital like Athens nicely captures the texture of that kind of journalistic second-class citizenship.
Summing up, as Alexander Mountgomery might in surveying his own situation, "Foreign Matter" is no big deal.