Since Night Soldiers, in 1988, Alan Furst has published nearly a dozen moody, atmospheric spy novels set in Europe during or on the cusp of the Second World War. Over the past 10 years, these books have won an increasingly wide readership in North America. Spies of the Balkans is his latest contribution to a genre - the historical spy novel - which he may not have invented, but which he seems to own.
Like its predecessors, Balkans is deftly written and handsomely rooted in specifics of time and place. There an appealing protagonist - a Salonika detective, Constantine (Costa) Zannis - and a depth of local colour (e.g., how to order octopus in a Salonika waterfront café). There are a believable set of progressions in the fundamentally simple story, and - Furst's specialty - a sharp sense of the narrow, nasty choices Europeans good and bad were left with as the mother of all wars sneaked up on them.
The redolent setting is Salonika in 1940-41. Zannis operates as a special sort of policeman, handling sensitive matters for the political elite in this port in northern Greece. For a cop in such a dubious position, he's an upright and morally fastidious soul. Also a patriot, a humanist and a dog-lover. Elegant women find him irresistible, not least because he knows an acceptable retsina when he tastes one, and how to choose just the right cut of prime octopus in that smoky café down on the corniche.
Furst protagonists are tough guys in the Sam Spade/Philip Marlowe tradition. That is, they will fight dirty when they have to, but never lose their moral GPS, even in a panicking world when reservists are being called up, papers are burned in embassy gardens and freighters are being dive-bombed in the harbour.
This is world under threat, and not an innocent world, either
If you were ever in Rick's Nightclub in Casablanca in, say, 1940, when Sam was on the piano and Ingrid Bergman was in town and falling for Rick all over again, then you know the sort of guy Zannis is, and the sets of choices he finds himself operating within.
This is world under threat, and not an innocent world, either: Wars, civil and otherwise, have occupied the Balkans for at least 2,000 years. Great hatreds have been lovingly polished and carefully stored. The Italians invade northern Greece and are shoved back across the Albanian frontier. Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Romania are coming apart at the seams, morally and politically. The Wehrmacht waits to feast on the remains.
Zannis, the upright Greek cop, finds himself organizing and running a refugee network, starting in Berlin and funnelling German Jews through the port of Salonika and on to Alexandria and Palestine. He is tapped by the British Secret Intelligence Service, who want to use his network to get a downed British airman, who happens also to be an important scientist, out of occupied France. This allows the story to duck out of Salonika for a few days and take an excursion to Furst's beloved wartime Paris, where the Greek dick picks up his scientist and gets a pretty good table at Brasserie Heiniger.
All this is vintage Alan Furst. (One of the tics in a Furst novel: The protagonist always gets a nosh at Heiniger.) And if you've already consumed 10 Furst novels set in and around wartime Europe, and relished them all, then Spies of the Balkans is going to offer many of the same respectably rare pleasures: A mostly unknown corner of Europe beautifully established; credible wartime atmosphere; okay writing about sex; and a likeable protagonist who knows his way around a Walther PPK, but has just enough of the everyman to give the story a certain heft.
In fact, as genre novels, Furst's historical spy stories punch considerably above their weight, even when certain scenes and set-ups - sex with aristocratic women, crowded trains, cigarette smoke - have started feeling, book-to-book, like more of the same.The novels are still as strong as, maybe stronger than, the best Eric Ambler or Graham Greene, two novelists who wrote historical spy stories set in the same period, though before it became "historical." And if you've not encountered any Furst yet, but happen to be looking for a fascinating rainy-day read at the cottage this summer, Spies of the Balkans is just the ticket.
Peter Behrens is the author of the novel The Law of Dreams.