Alan Furst's elegantly-written novels about spies in World War II have become must-have acquisitions and Spies of the Balkans was no disappointment.
We find ourselves in Salonika in 1940, with Greece wondering if (when?) the Germans are going to invade. Costa Zannis is a former detective who now handles political cases, mingling with the international cast of characters who have a range of motives for being in the port. The Balkan nations are dividing into those which support the Axis powers and those who's fierce nationalism leads them to plan for guerilla wars in the mountains.
Zannis is an honourable man and agrees to help a German Jewish woman from Berlin who is in the process of setting up a route to smuggle Jews out of Germany eastwards and onto Istanbul. The British get wind of this and approach Zannis, applying pressure on him to smuggle one of their scientists out of France before the Germans get their hands on him.
Furst is a master of what in the world of cinema would be called "noir". The characters, Zannis included, seem alienated from normal life. They inhabit dingy bars, arrange assignations on street corners and have to disappear into the shadows when cars containing their enemies nose into view. They have hopeless love affairs with old-flames before falling for the wife of a notorious gangster. Above all, the filthy game of spying infests their lives with its secrecy, its betrayals and its thorough-going nastiness.
There is so much here - complex intriguing, a cast of well-drawn international characters, huge suspense - at one point Zannis has to go to Paris where his contacts have tried to make him look as normal as possible by going to a restaurant used by Gestapo officers, where things almost go terribly wrong. We visit the home of the German organiser of the escape route, and follow a Jewish couple as they nervously cross the borders of Europe on their way to freedom.
But Furst is far too stylish a write to make this just a "spy novel". Furst depicts the despair of wartime, when the only way to remain intact as a full human being is to give up any hope of surviving and to join forces with those who could lead you to disaster, but at least will allow you to live with some shreds of integrity.
Costas Zannis is a memorable character, who manages to retain a sense of honour although involved with nefarious dealings. He manages to find his way through a maze of conflicting loyalties but finds that with invasion imminent you have to join forces with unlikely partners. He joins a long line of Furst characters torn in different directions yet somehow coming out in one piece to continue (hopefully) their stories on the pages of another book.
Spies of the Balkans is the 11th novel in Alan Furst's "Night Soldiers" series - I've never found a dud among them and I continue to wait for the next with keen anticipation.
I've been reading Furst since his first book, and I'm thrilled that he's finally gotten around to setting something in my ancestral homeland (Greece). That said, he does have a very distinctive style that is definitely not to everyone's taste. His narratives tend to unfold in a somewhat fractured way, in vignettes that can sometimes skip large swathes of time and geography. His characters can often have a somewhat detached tone to them, which can make them somewhat less empathetic than your average spy/thriller protagonists. Personally, I feel no one does WWII atmosphere better, and I'm always glad to step back in time to a world that he's captured so wonderfully.
This book revolves around Constantine Zannis, a Greek police detective serving in Salonika (present-day Thessaloniki, historically, Greece's second-largest city). He works for a shadowy high-ranking police patron on "special" cases that involve more discretion and nuance than called for in common crimes. Although in 1940 the war has yet to reach Greece, it's clear that it's only a matter of time before it does, and the city is crawling with Allied and Axis spies. As the war creeps closer and closer to the border, we see him change roles, from policeman to spycatcher to activated reserve officer to Allied agent.
In these roles we first see Zannis get involved in an underground railroad helping Jews escape German-controlled territory into Turkey. This is handled very well, as we see all aspects of the operation, from the German enablers, their SS hunters, the scared couples on trains chugging through the Balkans, the palms that need to be greased at the Turkish border, etc. And when he gets trucked north to serve in a unit along the border, it brings home the human scale of the war in Europe. The biggest storyline involves British agents (which include a former girlfriend) convincing him to go to Paris and bring out a British scientist caught in the occupied city. But what might be the central high stakes premise in another writer's thriller is in Furst's war just another task to be grimly undertaken by a committed and principled man.
The one area in which this book stumbles is in some of Zannis' personal relationships, especially an insipid affair with the stunning wife of a shipping magnate. It comes out of nowhere and does nothing for the story except drag it kicking and screaming into the realm of conventional Hollywood blockbuster ("they found passion amidst the winds of war"). Fortunately, it's just a minor glitch, and there is none of the grand sweep and heft of typical spy thrillers. Furst is more of miniaturist, working in fine detail to create a series of stories that, read together, accrue a heft of their own.
on 10 March 2011
Alan Furst has clearly researched his material very thoroughly; unfortunately, the book wears its research rather heavily. The writing is full of exposition; characters are forever saying things to one another for the reader's benefit, rather than because they might realistically say them in the given situation; everything is EXPLAINED and SIGNPOSTED in capital letters.
To give a brief example, one character says: 'We are madly Hellenophile; you know, we have a great passion for Greece.' If you don't mind having every difficult word explained to you by the characters then maybe this won't annoy you, but after a while it began to drive me up the wall. Apart from anything else, it constantly reminded me that these characters were fictional, and that they were explaining things for my benefit rather than getting on with the plot. For me, the style of writing destroyed any tension that the story would otherwise have had.
It is a solidly constructed narrative but, because of the writing, the comparisons with John Le Carre are not really warranted. Perhaps I made a mistake in buying this one first. I see from other reviews of this novel that Furst's other books are better.
on 18 July 2010
The funny thing about Alan Furst's novels is that they always leave me wanting more. I agree that the major characters can seem a little removed, but that simply whets one's appetite to find out more, in my view. At the end of this novel I was really keen to find out what happens next - to finish the story in a sense. Knowing the author, I'll probably never know and that is what is so intriguing about his novels. One could view it as a reflection of those times. As other reviewers have already commented, nobody catches the approach of WW2 better (I hazard that Irene Nemirovsky is the only equal, but she had the 'advantage' of actually being there in Paris). This was a great book - better than the last two or three - and I highly recommend it.
on 28 May 2014
I have read all Alan's books and I definitely think that his earlier ones are better. His trademark is a careful characterisation and gripping plot. In this book I really did not believe in the characters and the plot is laboured. The central love story is unbelievable. The action jumps all over the place. No time or space for the characters to really grow on you. Too much is 'explained' where in earlier novels much was implied and left for the reader to discover. Sorry - I am a fan but this is not a great example of an Alan Furst Novel.
on 11 July 2010
The other reviews pretty well say it all. I have read all the Alan Furst books and it is a real treat when a new one is published. I learn so much from each book and find myself looking up additional information on the internet - not just a great read but also a learning experience!
Is it possible to award five stars before reading? Probably not a sensible thing to do. But such is the consistent excellence of Alan Furst, the temptation is always there. In the case of Spies of the Balkans such confidence would not have been undermined.
There are excursions to familiar Furst territory - Paris, of course, and Berlin - but the epicentre now is Salonika in 1940. Greece, for the moment, is not at war but Hitler's shadow is lengthening and Mussolini is looking for cheap glory. In Germany Jews with the means are looking to escape. Furst's story is how Costa Zannis, a Greek policeman with political responsibilities, finds himself at one end of a long and dangerous route to freedom which winds via Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade to his patch on the edge of Aegean.
The spies of the title are multinational. At the outset, Zannis is - unknowingly - in a romantic relationship with one. Later, he embarks on a more passionate, all-embracing affair with the beautiful wife of one of the country's most powerful men. This is a test of credibility which Furst just about manages to pull off initially and makes more and more convincing as the novel progresses.
Furst afficionados need have no qualms. Newcomers, perhaps those whose memories go back to the works of Eric Ambler, should certainly feel at home with the Spies of the Balkans.
on 18 May 2011
Enjoyed the book but found it a liitle "Light". It was good to read something about that part of ww2 instead of France, Italy,and Africa we tend to forget that the Balkans and Russia were involved as well. I lked the way Alan Furst made it more human by bringing in the love between master and dog and his feeling of lonelyness about having to leave him with his parents. The way Alan intervowe daily work with undercover work was cleaverly done.
on 27 February 2011
This is Alan Furst's eleventh novel, and one has to continue to admire him for being able to keep pulling essentially the same rabbit out of essentially the same hat. Indeed, his books are starting to feature the same minor characters and the same places, for no real reason, I think, other than to provide an in-joke for his faithful readers. His new book includes a long journey to Paris by the book's hero, Zannis, who just happens, as any Greek policeman would, to have spent his childhood there, to recover a downed Royal Air Force officer by about the most dangerous and complicated route anyone could have devised. The whole episode seems largely intended to take us, once more, to the Brasserie Heinneger, so that the story about the bullet-hole in the mirror can be told yet again.
By now, Furst's strengths and weaknesses are well known. He is good at the re-creation of historical atmosphere, and at creating believable characters who undergo real moral dilemmas. He is also able to present the business of espionage in an unusually convincing fashion. On the other hand, his plotting is often very loose, and many of his books are really just a set of related episodes loosely strung together. Like most Americans, he doesn't really understand politics in the ideological sense, rather than the practical sense, of the term. And his historical research can often be suspect. I can't speak for Greece, but in the space of two pages he commits two howlers in elementary French: a waiter refers to a "plateau de la mer", when it should be "plateau de fruits de mer", and on the next page the Germans are called the "Bosch', who, of course, was a sixteenth century Flemish painter. It's annoying that copy editors allow these things to slip through, and it makes you wonder what other errors are lurking in other parts of the book.
Time for a rethink, or even a fresh start ....
(3.5 stars) The fraught events in the Balkans leading to the occupation of Greece by the Nazis in April, 1941, form the structure of this complex novel, which begins in Greece and ranges through Albania, France, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Turkey, as small, vulnerable Eastern European countries try to stave off both the Italians and the Nazis. Alan Furst, famous for his carefully researched espionage thrillers about events from 1940 and 1941, recreates the confusions of the Balkan countries in early 1941, as they try to maintain their sovereignty against the Nazis' massive war machine. With different political systems, languages, and cultural sensibilities among the Balkan countries, their best chance for individual survival lies not within their own, often impotent, governments but within a loosely connected group of individuals from many European countries who may have access to information.
Forty-year-old Costa Zannis, a senior police official in the northern Greek city of Salonika, is in the middle of the conflict. The Italians, who have invaded nearby Albania, have been repulsed when they have tried to attack Greece, but Zannis knows that Germany will soon "rescue the dignity of her Italian partner" and invade with big guns. The immediate issues regarding Balkan governments alternate with issues regarding aid for the escaping Jews, and as Zannis walks the tightrope and does his part to aid people in Germany whose lives are in danger, his own life becomes even more complicated by his suddenly developed attraction to the wife of one of Greece's wealthiest men.
The novel, a chessboard of battle moves and countermoves, illustrates the interactions among the various players of Eastern European countries as they attempt to save the Balkans from German domination. Unfortunately, the lack of characterization for these players makes the reader less involved in the action than one would expect during times which might have changed the course of world history forever. Costa Zannis is a fine policeman, but the reader knows little about him, and it is not until the end of the novel that the reader learns anything about his large family in Salonica. No effort is made to illustrate the conflicts between Emilia Krebs, a Jew in Berlin, dedicated to helping other Jews escape Germany, and her seemingly sympathetic husband, who happens to be a career officer on the General Staff of the German Wehrmacht. Zannis's love for Demetria, the wife of one of the wealthiest men in Greece, is convenient for the plot and its need for romance, but not explained in terms of character development.
Furst's research into this period, as the Reich continues its march east, is fascinating, but the novel, overall, moves through so many countries with so many characters that readers become interested primarily in finding out how the author will ever resolve all these issues, rather than in understanding the big picture that underlies their activities. The book gives insights into the behavior of certain countries, but as a novel, The Spies of the Balkans does not stimulate the reader's emotional investment, a quality one expects in the best espionage fiction. Mary Whipple