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Another masterly evocation of WW2 espionage
on 18 July 2010
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.