- The Foreign Correspondent by Alan Furst
Weidenfeld, 278 pp, £12.99, November 2006, ISBN 0 297 84829 1
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.