Spies of The Balkans by Alan Furst
My Rating: 4 of 5 Stars
“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.