Famed author Alan Furst revisits his legendary setting of a Europe overwhelmed by war in this latest account of high-stakes espionage and dangerous love affairs. SPIES OF THE BALKANS already floats near the top of the Indie National Bestseller List, following Furst's other superb World War II novels set in various locales.
The year is 1940 in the Balkan Peninsula, where Allied spies have infiltrated civic networks in many nations. German forces have devoured most of Western Europe now, with Axis powers controlling the majority of the Balkan States. Mussolini, having conquered Albania, now looks toward Greece to boost Italy's military might. Greek Nationals with access to sensitive information have begun to comprehend the full scale of Mussolini's intentions. A few Greeks and Germans with limited connections have also started a clandestine movement to help extricate Jews. These operatives are men and women who have come to understand the appalling truth behind the Nazis’ intentions, who live in fear and risk everything to aid some terribly exposed people. Mr. Costa Zannis, a senior police officer in the port city of Salonika, Greece, is one of (initially) two undercover agents who choose to do this. He and a Jewish woman operating in Berlin will provide passage to safe countries for over 40 fugitives by the end, in a number of operations undertaken at the risk of many lives.
The daunting atmosphere that pervaded Europe during the War is infused into every aspect of this dark story, which centers on Costa Zannis and his experiences with operatives with whom he's involved. Zannis is a shrewd operator whose practical intelligence and courage make him an interesting hero and an ideal law enforcement officer. He is level-headed and ethical, traits that first led to his being entrusted. It is because of his dependability that Zannis chooses to do something decent at a time when nothing else decent seems to be happening. Zannis is forced to extend this same trust to other worthy parties who, through him, become accomplices in a risky venture. Though they all worry about being caught, none ever consider letting this stop them from doing what they must. And yet Zannis and the other operatives are flawed and fallible, people whose skills never set them far above the situations they're faced with. All in all, there are many characters here who keep the book in the realm of the believable and the moving.
Costa Zannis's story is at times as much about his personal passions as the secret operations in which he's involved. He cares deeply for his parents and his dog, and his private life can only be described as heated. His first affair is with a seductive British girlfriend who turns out to be a spy, which is followed by an even more passionate series of trysts with a lusty married woman with whom a relationship is extremely dangerous. Zannis's tendencies to wander easily into these kinds of dicey interludes --- and the subsequent descriptions of his heated seductions --- bring on some intense moments. There are several bold passages that center on the throes of his passion, and his lovers', which made me blush but certainly makes for writing that is sultry and amusing. This is compelling, sure, but it should be mentioned that Zannis is respectful and does care for the women he's with. He dreams of love even when his emotions tend toward the more tangible and immediate. In the end, his story is as much about finding peace and companionship as it is his subversive part in the War.
Before the end, Zannis and the other operatives sense that there is an unfortunate price to be paid for keeping one's honor. As the situation in Greece comes to a head with the German armies nearing Greece's borders, the Gestapo makes a vital discovery about Zannis's operation. The pursuit by the Germans of the operatives involved becomes imminent, and these events tie into factual accounts of the timeline in Greece. SPIES OF THE BALKANS takes readers forward to the historical occupation of Greece and the Reich's regrettable erection of the swastika over the Acropolis.
All in all, this is some intense history, which has been conveyed with remarkable sophistication --- moving fiction that fits perfectly into historical accounts. It is a stirring war story that readers will find to be both momentous and sad, but that ultimately is about men and women who choose to act with decency in a time of great suffering and brutality --- those champions who carry themselves with hope and integrity when all of the world seems to be lost.
Reviewed by Melanie Smith on January 23, 2011