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A spy tale with more ambience than action

The Foreign Correspondent, By Alan Furst, Random House, 273 pp, $24.95

Alan Furst has done it again. The man has written a thriller dripping in atmosphere that fails to ignite. "The Foreign Correspondent," his fourth novel in six years, is another modest effort. His unparalleled sense of place cannot disguise the fact that nothing much happens in it. If he's not phoning it in, he's not delivering the goods either.

This is a pity because Furst brings more to the table of historical spy fiction than any other practitioner at work today. He writes like a dream, and he mines the mother lode of Europe on the eve of World War II as John le Carré did the Cold War.

For most of us, Furst was the first to take us into the dusk of Paris and Berlin and Bucharest and Moscow before the lights went out. He infused his stories with sophistication and dread as he plumbed the feverish efforts of competing intelligence services. This was all new to us and we were enthralled.

Furst also introduced us to a marvelous melange of emigres, louche, fearful, and duplicitous. His cafe society of Hungarians and White Russians was riddled with spies, and his plots often hung on journalists existing at the perilous intersection of reportage and espionage. His ambience was untouchable, and his women were irresistible. It was all romantic, and we couldn't get enough of it.

Early critics bore in on the triumph of atmosphere over action in Furst's books. Those charges, in the beginning, were easy to deflect. Novels like ``Night Soldiers," ``Dark Star," and ``The Polish Officer" were deep and satisfying. But as time wore on, the barbs gained purchase. ``Blood of Victory" and ``Dark Voyage" seemed thin by comparison. ``The Foreign Correspondent," sadly, belongs with them.

This time, Furst focuses on the Italian resistance. It's 1938 and we meet a small group of Italians living in Paris who struggle to put out a tiny opposition newspaper, Liberazione, against the fascist rule of Mussolini. It is published on a shoe string and smuggled around Italy. Mussolini is concerned enough about it to send his murderous hit squad, OVRA, to Paris to intimidate the group.

The book opens briskly with the OVRA assassination of one of these anti-fascist Italians during a tryst with his mistress at a Paris hotel. The terror among the dwindling group of Liberazione grows, and we lick our chops at the prospect of a superior Furst confection.

Reuters correspondent Carlo Weisz, a multicultural Italian, then surfaces. A classic Furst character, Weisz spent a couple of years at Oxford and swims like a dolphin anywhere in Europe. We catch him covering the Spanish Civil War before returning to his Paris base, where, we learn, he is part of the Italian opposition and, following the assassination, assumes a greater role writing for and publishing Liberazione.

He is pulled to Berlin on assignment, where he falls for a gorgeous creature who works against the Nazi regime. The plot thickens nicely when Weisz is persuaded to work for British intelligence while being targeted by shady Croatians, the French Sûreté, and Mussolini's hit men. This situation should ripple with tension and yet, somehow, it never produces the appropriate nail-biting.

Eventually, the British persuade Weisz against his better judgment to return to Italy to crank up the whole Liberazione operation. He avoids disaster rather easily, and by the end of this book, we're left aching once again for more action to match ambience, more tension to propel Furst's writing skills. No such luck.

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