Spies of the Balkans : a novel

by Alan Furst

Paperback, 2010





New York : Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2010.


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.

Media reviews

Spies of the Balkans is the latest of his page-turners about the coming threat of Nazism and German occupation in the regions of Europe that were neither immediately conquered like France or Poland, nor which held out like Britain. The impact of the war on the Iberian peninsular, or on those central European countries like Switzerland, Hungary and Romania which tried to stay aloof from the conflict, remains little-known. Furst writes about this world overshadowed by, but not totally plunged into, full-scale conflict. Denis MacShane MP was Minister for the Balkans 2001-2005
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“Spies of the Balkans” is set primarily in the northeastern Greek city of Salonika, an ancient and famously polyglot place only recently returned to Athens’ sovereignty by the second Balkan War. The action, which is propulsively nonstop, occurs over the crucial seven-month period between late 1940 and the Nazi invasion of Greece in the spring of 1941. Furst’s engaging protagonist is a “senior official” of the Salonika police, Constantine (Costa) Zannis. His personal qualities — a rare disinterest in bribes, an unfailing discretion and a wide-ranging competence that allows him to navigate back alleys and exclusive private clubs — have attracted the notice and patronage of the city’s 80-year-old police commissioner, Vangelis.
Mr. Furst has written so often about such men, the intrigue that surrounds them, and their subtle, intuitive maneuvering that he risks repeating himself. But Zannis is a younger, more vigorous version of the prototype than some. And he is Greek, which adds a whole new perspective to Mr. Furst’s view of Europe before and during World War II, given the strategic importance of Greece’s ability to resist German domination. If shades of its personal drama are by now familiar to Mr. Furst’s readers, this book’s larger and more important geography seems new.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Speesh
"So, don't trust the telephone. Or the newspapers. Or the radio. Or tomorrow."

'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.
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LibraryThing member dieseltaylor
A good read. Mr Furst does his research his period before writing and it shows.

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 [1917] but I see from my Cook's Continental guide was either 2hrs 40 or 3 hrs 40 in 1934 by a fast boat train. : )… (more)
LibraryThing member ChristopherSwann
Furst is in top form with his latest novel. Yes, he continues to follow his formula. Yes, the Brasserie Heininger and its infamous table 14 show up again. And I have to admit that the romance in this novel comes across--at least, at first--as contrived rather than genuine.

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.
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LibraryThing member leifurh
First off - to prevent any misunderstanding - I ought to say that Alan Furst is among my favourite authors - I have all his books and pre-order all his new ones. Perhaps it is because I had just finished re-reading one of his earlier books (Red Gold) that I was so disappointed with this one. I even felt at times that this wasn't one of his works at all - that the publishers had hired a hack writer to fill the need for a book to be published to schedule ...

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.
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LibraryThing member KLTMD
One of the best of the series, a throwback to earlier books. You are immersed in blue smoke of a gauloise, listening to music by Django Rheinhart, and hearing the story of the Brassiere Heineger in Paris. His heroes are every day me, though more successful with women than the men I know, they are called upon to do the right thing in situations which broke most around them. The great race between fascism and communism between the wars is ever present and made chillingly real. Read this book for the little known role of Salonika. Read this book for its portrait of a by-gone world. Read this book for a damn good story.… (more)
LibraryThing member RichMaguire
Wonderful read!! What courage these ordinary folks(spies) had!!
LibraryThing member kylenapoli
Well written, of course, but episodic. Gives me the feeling that Furst will soon be writing short stories rather than novels. Maybe eventually haiku?
LibraryThing member Chris469
Good adventure/spy novel. Set in the six-month time period of October 1940 to early April 1941 during World War II. The main character is a Greek detective of police in Salonika, in northern Greece. Most of the action is in Salonika, but the tale also takes the reader to Budapest, Paris, Berlin, Belgrade, and Turkish tramp steamers bound for Alexandria. There are guns, girls, gangsters, Nazi bad guys, and lots of cloak and dagger. It helps that it is pretty well-written. It has its moments of titillating romance along with the usual spy novel action, but on another level it is more generally a depressing reminder of the anxieties and dangers of day-to-day life in a Europe then dominated by Hitlerism. A good read (or unabridged audio book in this case.)… (more)
LibraryThing member ritaer
Salonikan police officer Consta Zannis is gradually drawn into espionage and plots to aid refugees from Germany as first Italian, then German forces close in on Greece. From luxury hotels to wharfside tavernas and from Paris to Turkey the players range from committed opponents of the Nazi regime to gangster opportunists. Zannis protects those he can while engaging in a series of passionate romantic encounters.… (more)
LibraryThing member ShellyS
As I work through all of Alan Furst's books in trade paperback, I'm constantly reminded of how meticulous a researcher he is and how skilled he is at weaving the knowledge he's gained about the years leading up to and through World War II into a work of fiction, skill that includes breathing life into a set of heroes, both likely and unlikely.

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.
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LibraryThing member berthirsch
A suspense book that takes place in Salonika, Greece on the cusp of the Nazi invasion of the Balkans in 1941.

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.
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LibraryThing member BillPilgrim
Very enjoyable story of intrigue during the Second World War. I have not read any Furst before this book, but I plan to now.
LibraryThing member velopunk
I find the time between September, 1939 and the German invasion of the Soviet Union extremely interesting. Nobody writes fiction about it better than Alan Furst. The main character of Spies of the Balkans is a Greek police detective who manages to help fashion an escape route from Berlin to Hungary down through the Balkans to the Greek city of Salonika where refugees may be sent on to Turkey or British Egypt.

What a great read. I hope Furst continues to mine this vein.
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LibraryThing member cameling
Greece in the early 1940s kept her wary eye on Hitler's advances through parts of Europe. Mussolini, attempting to replicate Hitler's success, decides to invade Greece, but is repelled by the Greek army. But Salonika waits for the inevitable invasion by Hitler's army and secret service.

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.
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LibraryThing member barlow304
Satisfying thriller set in the Balkans in 1940. As Germany menaces the Balkan nations, Italy launches a clumsy, unsuccessful invasion of Greece.
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.
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LibraryThing member jan.fleming
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.

Highly recommended
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LibraryThing member drmaf
By the numbers spy thriller, with the added interest of being set in the turbulent Balkans in the early years of WWII. It concerns the activities of a handsome Greek police officer who navigates the twisted loyalties and dangers of wartime Europe while saving endangered people from the clutches of the Nazis, finding time along the way to bed various women who happen to cross his path. "Slick" is the word that springs to mind when describing this book. It is the literary equivalent of sliding on a thick coat of oil across a highly polished floor. You begin at the beginning, slide effortlessly and quickly through with minimal emotional engagement, and exit at the end, having been entertained, certainly, but wondering if that few hours of your life invested was well-spent. There is simply a lack of drama in the story, very little sense that the characters are ever in any danger, which is essential for a spy story. The protagonist is is simply too be good to be true, he never encounters a situation he can't instantly think his way out of, and flits through the dangers of wartime Europe with ludicrous ease. The author has a habit of setting up situations and then resolving them without any attendant suspense or drama, which certainly moves the story along very quickly, but sort of defeats the purpose of a thriller. For instance, our heroic protagonist shoots an SS officer in the face, in the middle of Occupied Paris, which would seem to guarantee an intense manhunt and plenty of close shaves. Not a bit of it. Two pages later, he's safely out danger and back home in Greece without turning a hair. Even James Bond had to survive being captured and tortured a few times. Not our hero, he's literally the Teflon Man. In addition, he's also, as required, impossibly attractive to women. Throughout the novel, a whole string of women find it impossible to resist disrobing and sampling his manly charms between the sheets. The most ludicrous example of this concerns his true love, who has barely cast a first glance his way and is straight away indicating by various subtle movements that she wants to play hide the sausage with him. I mean, I have seen lust at first sight in real life, but it usually involves copious amounts of alcohol and always at least the exchange of some words. Again, even the immortal Bond struck out once or twice, but not our hero. Really, that is the whole story of this book, it's just too unbelievable to be taken seriously. Which is a pity, because the author's description of the chaos of wartime Europe, the seedy underworld and labrynthine politics of the Balkans, are very good. the book just needed a bit of genuine drama and a more human protagonist to be a top class spy thriller. As it is, it is very much an airplane read, buy it at the airport, read on a long flight, leave it in the motel room for the next guest because its not worth lugging around once you're done. Not bad, not good, mildly entertaining, but guaranteed not to stretch your intellectual capacities in any way.… (more)
LibraryThing member MaggieFlo
This book is a grat story. The main character is Costa Zannis, a police detective in Salonika in Greece. The story takes place just as the Second World War is starting. Because he is a nice, fair person with a network of friends and contacts, he becomes increasingly involved in political intrigues and people smuggling. The background story of Hitler, Mussolini, Mextax and the Yugoslavian government is fascinating to view through Zannis' character. If you like a really well written spy novel, read this.… (more)
LibraryThing member camharlow2
This is yet another masterful novel set in the early years of the Second World War, by an author who has concentrated his writing in the period of the 1930s and 1940s. Once again, Furst captures the tense and febrile atmosphere of the times, with the action taking place mainly in northern Greece as the war approaches the country in 1940-1941. the main character is Costa Zannis, an ex-detective who now investigates possible political incidents for the authorities. Gradually, he becomes involved in opposing the Nazi forces ranged against his country as his contacts spread through the Balkans, to France and even to Germany.… (more)
LibraryThing member Coach_of_Alva
A typical Alan Furst book. That is a compliment, not a criticism, even though I'm a little tired of some of the plot devices that are repeated, like the high school romance. I was still impressed with Furst's ability to generate concerns about the hero's safety, even though I know that his heroes always survive. If I remember one scene ten years from now, it will probably be the professionally clever, morally stupid Gestapo bureaucrat who frightens the colonel's wife out of Berlin with a gentle tone and fake eyeglasses.… (more)
LibraryThing member elenchus
synopsis | Costa Zannis is a fixer in the port city of Salonika in October 1940, and though he does keep an eye on developments in Europe he's not particularly involved in anything directly. That changes when his reputation leads to an encounter with the wife of an officer on the German General Staff. As Costa considers whether and how to continue what seemed a one-time favour, his affair is suddenly of interest to British intelligence, and then he's recalled for active duty. War again appears to be coming to the Balkans, and it's unclear how Greece could be victorious.


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.
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LibraryThing member nivramkoorb
I usually don't read the spy novel genre that much. Furst was recommended so I picked this book up. It was a bit disappointing. From other reviews I have read, it is possible that this is one of his weaker books. The plot was very simplistic and very hard to believe. I could not understand the motivation of a Greek police detective wanting to get involved with the dangerous work of moving people out of Nazi Germany and on to Turkey. The relationships were simple with little depth. The plot had little dramatic tension but I did enjoy the historic element of this time prior to the US entering the was. I will do more research on Furst's other books before I read another of his novels.… (more)
LibraryThing member Orientsee
excellent read.
LibraryThing member JBreedlove
Lead up to the German occupation in Salonika telling the story of police detective Zannis and his evolution from cop to spy to resistance leader. Never read anything quite like this. Fast moving, tense, but giving a good feel to pre-war Greece. Looking forward to the next one. Always great discovering a new author.



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