As war approaches northern Greece, the spies begin to circle--from the Turkish legation to the German secret service. In the ancient port of Salonika, Costa Zannis, a senior police official, head of an office that handles special "political" cases, risks everything to secure an escape route for those hunted by the Gestapo.
'Spies of the Balkans' is a subtle and thoroughly satisfying story of war-time, Second World War-time, set in Greece, in Salonika, in 1940 - the early, confused, months of the war.
Furst portrays perfectly, the ambiance and atmosphere of a country not initially involved, but caught in the crossfire and seeing the war creep inexorably closer. Naive spy games are being played out, mostly and typically, by the British, it has to be said. Johnny Foreigner can be persuaded, if not bought, to just do this one more thing as a favour for...for what? Past favours? Promises of protection that can't possibly be fulfilled or have no intention of being fulfilled. The sound of the British Empire crumbling and fading to insignificance in the face of a new, harsher reality, is deafening. But, that's just me. Here, people are getting on with it, matter of fact. There's a problem, they solve it. They get the job done. Costa Zannis is the man, in Salonika, who can. A man with contacts and connections seemingly throughout Eastern Europe. At one point, he's having an affair with a woman who turns out to be a British spy, of sorts. At another, he's pulling in favours and running the eastern side of a rat-run smuggling Jewish people out from under the Gestapo's noses and across Europe to some sort of freedom - not just a better future, but a future. Full stop. Then he's swooning like a love-sick calf over an old school-girl crush, extricating herself from the sweaty grip of a shipping magnate. In between, he's got to go fight the Italians up in the Macedonian mountains, then try and make sure his family also escape to freedom. In the middle, the good old British are back, reasoning if he can smuggle Jews out of Germany, he can smuggle stupid British scientists out as well.
This is indeed espionage writing at its best. Ordinary espionage, maybe is a better description. The espionage of necessity. It's not going to have you on the edge of your seat, it's not going to have you breathless in anticipation of the next stunning shock or cheap thrill. But it is going to keep you gripped in much more subtle ways. It is beautifully written, sparse but effective, measured and delightfully paced. A bit like how Olen Steinhauer's Balkan Trilogy could or should have been written, I felt at times. Steinhauer got close, but Furst hits the mark.
What I came away with was a feeling that I'd got to know a character who might well have existed, who maybe did exist, I hoped so anyway, who did what he could, because he could. And didn't think much more about it than that. He got on with it. If there really were people like Zannis, we owe them.
I will not give away the plot but I had a couple of concerns about our heroes fatal attraction to women as it did seem a trifle OTT. As for accuracy the only potential error I could see was a travel time of 2 hours from Le Havere to Paris is given as 2 hours  but I see from my Cook's Continental guide was either 2hrs 40 or 3 hrs 40 in 1934 by a fast boat train. : )
What makes these books work is Furst's depictions of people, mostly ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances, set in a bygone era full of detail and atmosphere. One would think that Furst, who has carved out a narrow niche--historical thrillers set in late 1930s-1940s Europe--would have worn this niche smooth by now. On the contrary, each novel adds something new. He isn't always consistent--Blood Of Victory was far better than the following Dark Voyage--but even in his least best novels he creates compelling characters whose fates we care about.
I've spent several nights reading Furst's books and glancing at the clock, thinking I need to go to sleep, but then I've only got twenty or so pages left... Spies of the Balkans was no different. Intelligent, well-written novels, both in terms of characterization, plot, and language.
I was quite surprised to see the glowing reviews posted by some - about a book whose plot unfolds like a Hollywood B-movie script where the heroes always succeed and the bad guys always lose. Even the sisters assumed lost (for realism presumably) are resurrected at the end ...
I guess I'll give Mr. Furst the benefit of the doubt and buy his next book (produced on the same clockwork schedule I assume) but if that turns out to be of similar quality to this one then I guess I'll turn elsewhere.
In this book, he set his tale in Greece, a country whose activities during the Second World War are largely unfamiliar to me. As with the other books of his I've read, Furst engages his characters in a series of actions and events that paint a picture of life in Greece as it prepares for the threat of a German/Nazi invasion.
Costa Zannis, a Greek police official who works on special cases, uncovers a German spy at the waterfront in Salonika at the start of the book, and over the next year or so, finds himself called up for active service in the Greek army, is injured and returned home, becomes involved in an underground network sneaking Jews out of Germany to Egypt or Turkey, and falls in love, all while planning for the safety of his mother and brother should the Germans invade, his activities taking him to a number of European cities.
When I read Furst's books, I feel as if I'm there with the characters, experiencing their world, and this is no exception. The pacing is solid, the actions required of Costa growing in seriousness and urgency until the Germans are at the border and he's faced with the decision of whether or not to leave his homeland. Despite the intrigue and tension, this is at its core, a simple tale well told.
Furst is a masterful writer who has created an unforgettable character, Costa Zannis , a police inspector and insider. He is a brave, inventive strong willed and strong armed individual. He is also a talented lover who falls in with English spies and a wealthy jewish heiress in Berlin, setting up an underground escape route for German jews.
This is a most satisfying tale, well paced and suspenceful.
What a great read. I hope Furst continues to mine this vein.
In these uncertain times, spies with different international concerns blend into Salonika society, some catching the eye of Costa Zannis, a police inspector known for his integrity, and one with a special team, working on cases that may require discretion. As the situation for Jews in Germany worsens, he gets involved in an underground movement to rescue Jews fleeing Germany, developing a system with a Jewish wife of a high ranking German officer, and another police official in Zagreb, and helping them escape to Turkey and Egypt. If that wasn't sufficiently stressful, the British secret service seek his assistance in rescuing a British scientist who managed to get himself shot down over occupied France, and bring him back to England. As the situation in Salonika deteriorates, even his own window of opportunity to get his family and lover to leave for safer shores becomes narrower.
This is not merely a good spy thriller, it is also an excellent study in characters who believe in doing what's necessary to save humanity, even if it means putting their own lives at risk.
Caught up in the turmoil is Costa Zannis, "a senior police official" in Salonika. Tackling special cases, Zannis is slowly drawn into an operation smuggling Jews out of Germany. Step by step, he is recruited by the Brits to help them in their war against the Nazis.
Beautifuly imagined and written, this book pulls you into the dark night before war.
Salonika, 1940. To the bustle of tavernas and the smell of hashish, a secret war is taking shape. In the backrooms of barbers, envelopes change hands, and in the Club de Salonique the air is thick with whispers. Costa Zannis is the city's dashing chief detective - a man with contacts high and low, in the Balkans and beyond. And as unknown ships and British 'travel writers' trickle through the port, he is a man very much in demand. Having helped defeat Italy in the highlands of Macedonia, Zannis returns to a city holding its breath. Mussolini's forces have retreated - for now - but German sights are fixed firmly on the region. And as the situation in Germany worsens, Zannis becomes involved in an audacious plot - smuggling Jews to Istanbul, through the back door of Europe. The British hear he can penetrate the continent's closed borders, and soon Zannis is embroiled in the resistance, and in a reckless love affair that could jeopardise everything. With a remarkable cast of operatives, SPIES OF THE BALKANS is a brilliant new espionage novel from Alan Furst.
Gosh - my first Furst! Why have I only discovered this author now?
Reading this author is like watching the best spy noir film you have
never seen. You don’t read this book you experience it.
The author’s sense of time and place create one of the most convincing
pre second World War settings I have ever read. As someone said no one
captures the turbulence, ambivalence, chaos and turmoil of Europe in this era as well as Alan Furst. Against the background of the ominous approach of WW2 his very ordinary characters are trying to carry on with normal life but in reality are having to make extraordinary choices (moral/immoral)and life or death decisions in an atmosphere of fear and paranoia.
“And, with much of Europe occupied by Nazi Germany, and Mussolini's armies in Albania, on the Greek frontier, one wasn't sure what came next. So, don't trust the telephone. Or the newspapers. Or the radio. Or tomorrow.”
The story has a fatalistic feel of inevitability, and powerlessness as
the Greeks wait for the invasion. When it, comes the story suddenly
becomes a race against time as the main character strives to ensure
the safety of his family and lover in the madness and panic that the
advance of the Germans brings.
Furst's setting is true to history but he doesn't always spell everything out. Evidently at this time (October 1940 - April 1941), German troops occupied Athens but Greece was controlled by General Metaxas, nominally prime minister. France was the reference point: if the French couldn't withstand the Nazis, the clear implication was no Balkan state could. The best path was avoiding conflict for as long as possible, until another option presented itself. Greece's ally Great Britain was under pressure in North Africa and in the Atlantic, and the Nazis were looking to build on recent successes on all fronts. Mussolini may have been unsuccessful in North Africa, but that was no solace when contemplating the Italian troops on Greece's border with Albania.
More specifically, the port city of Salonika had a history of occupation, by the Turks much earlier and more recently by the French. The result was that Salonika was another Casablanca: a crossroads of many nationalities and partisans, an embarkation point coming under increased scrutiny by allies and enemies, and a population having to face that final decision: to flee, collaborate, or to resist.
So: the Balkans had deep experience being pincered between daunting adversaries, residents knew there was rough sailing ahead and knew also they were not well equipped to change much. A grim outlook, but familiar.
The plot is eye-rollingly unlikely: the romance, of course, but also getting out of scrapes like Paris. It serves for the reader as a spoonful of sugar with which to down the medicine, that being: the factually accurate renderings of culture, circumstances, and all manner of violence attendant this part of the Continent in the early stages of world war.
As with other novels, Furst adopts third person omniscient and follows his protagonist around, with a few exceptions: he follows a saboteur for a few paragraphs leading up to the bombing of the Greek / Serbian HQ at a school in Trikkala, and includes a few other examples with a Gestapo captain in Berlin investigating Krebs. These interludes are cinematic, setting up tension since readers know what's coming but Costa and compadres don't.
Readers also are invited to see the infamous bullet hole at Brasserie Heininger, the booth number is pointed out (fourteen), but it's a story shared between characters neither of whom got it first-hand. The anecdote is both a nod to long-time Furst readers, and to those little stories which become myth despite themselves, emblematic of the hope shared among members of the Resistance.
The dog Melissa: a sheepdog, but brings to mind another dog of Furst's, a Tatra in The Polish Officer. Both survivors, but Melissa perhaps has a bit easier going.
Mr Brown appears briefly, apparently a recurring secondary character, but I'm not sure he's appeared in those books I've read. The sort of thing that is rewarding to puzzle out on a second reading.
Furst acknowledged in 2009 that this novel was part of a thematic subseries within Night Soldiers, "a second stage" to The Spies of Warsaw. If the first trilogy was panoramic, the second was existential. He didn't name this third subseries, which appears to be more than a trilogy. A guess will require reading a few of the others ... and it's possible he switched it up later on, as well.