Spies of the Balkans, by Alan Furst

by Rebeca on June 4, 2010

Spies of the Balkans: A Novel
by Alan Furst
Random House
288 pages
List price: $26.00; Amazon price: $17.47

(Editor’s Note: Reviewed appeared in Dan’s Papers]

Alan Furst is back with a powerful new espionage thriller, Spies of the Balkans. This time he ventures out of Eastern and Central Europe and transports readers back to 1940, to the port city of Salonika in Macedonia. It’s the Balkans and there’s no shortage of intrigue or spies.

Spies of the Balkans follows Costa Zannis, an honest senior police official, who has the knack to smooth out problems before they spiral out of control. Early on in the story, Zannis gets involved in helping Emelia Krebs, a German colonel’s Jewish wife, to organize an escape route for Jews from Berlin through Greece to neutral Turkey.

When Mussolini invades Greece, Zannis is called back into the reserve army and it’s there where be he meets his Croatian counterpart, Marko Pavlic. They soon become friends and allies in transporting German Jews to safety.

However, there’s a hitch when the British learn via an informant that Zannis has choreographed all the details of the escape. Zannis is then recruited by Francis Escovil, a spy who is working under the guise of a travel writer, to retrieve a captured British scientist from France. Working with French resistance fighters, the plan goes well until Zannis kills an SS officer in Paris and from there he has to rely on his own contacts and wits to get the scientist and himself safely back to Salonika. But once the Germans goose step into the Balkans, the British lure Zannis back to their corner.

Furst includes two subplots; a suspicious Gestapo officer who notices that his list of deportees have disappeared and who all seem to share a friendship with Emelia Krebs; and a love interest for Zannis, who coincidentally was a childhood neighbor and is now the wife of a wealthy Greek businessman who finances the Jewish escape operation.

One of the many pleasures of reading Furst’s novels is his talent of sending the reader to a distant time and place. He captures the essence of cities and their locales, whether it is a Parisian brasserie where one can almost smell and taste the choucroute served, or a dark, dank bar in Budapest where one can inhale the strong cigarette smoke. He elegantly writes of lively parties where everyone is not above suspicion, but he also writes of mundane, everyday events:

“Emilia carried a thermos of real coffee, hard to find these days, and a bag of freshly baked rolls, made with white flour. Stepping inside, she found the Gruen living room almost barren, what with much of the furniture sold. On the walls, posters had been tacked up to cover the spaces where expensive painting had once hung. The telephone sat on the floor, its cord unplugged from the wall-the Gestapo could listen to your conversation if the phone was plugged in. She greeted Frau Gruen, as pale and exhausted as her husband, then went to the closet in the hall and opened the door. The Gruens’ winter coats, recently bought from a used-clothing stall, were heavily worn, but acceptable. They mustn’t, she knew, look like distressed aristocracy.”

Furst expertly weaves in minor characters whose roles lead to major plot twists and turns, and for the most part, with the exception of the Nazis, many of these suspect characters manage to capture the readers’ interest and sympathy. The only weak point in the narrative is Zannis’ affair with Demetria, who is described by a former lover as the “Goddess.” The love scenes between Zannis and Demetria tend to be lackluster and slow down the urgency of the unfolding political drama in the Balkans. However, romance aside, the major player to all of Furst’s stories is history, and thankfully Furst doesn’t take artistic liberties with the facts to strengthen his story.

Spies of the Balkans is a stylish and intriguing story. For aficionados of  historical fiction, espionage thrillers, or even new readers to the genre, there’s something for everyone to keep the pages turning and  satisfied to the very end.


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Marie Zannis February 2, 2011 at 1:27 am

I first read about this book in The New York Times Book Review. I ordered it right away, and apart from almost getting a whiplash from seeing my last name pop up so often, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Furst put me back into the prewar time so deeply;it was very satisfying because I had wanted to understand more of what it was like, really being there.

My father’s family lived in and near Kalamata, Greece, and my grandmother starved to death during the German occupation. I was about 10 or 11 at the time.
We lived in Birmingham Alabama, and my father owned a bakery. I remember he closed the bakery the day he got the news. I was so sorry I didn’t know how to talk to him about it, but I just kept quiet out of respect.
I loved Furst having a believable hero. I have been to Greece many times, and I can truly imagine such a character.

I read many of Furst’s other books after that one, in fact, I think all that were available in our library system.

Thank you for your very good review. I t was a welcome reminder of some aspects I had forgotten.

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