For Alan Furst, writing about European history in the 1930s and 1940s is like exploring “a room with a thousand corners.” His latest World War II book, “Spies of the Balkans,” is his 11th in a series of espionage novels set in Europe after Hitler’s ascent to power and seeks out yet another corner of the conflict.
The novel takes place in Greece, but not its sunny, picturesque islands or great ancient cities like Athens. Instead, the setting is the darker, colder northern port city of Salonika in the Balkans, and described as a place known for its raucous underbelly. The time is the early 1940s. The war has begun, and spies from England, Turkey and Bulgaria — as well as fugitives — swarm the city. Greece has decided to oppose the Axis powers, and everyone awaits the Nazi response.
The narrator explains the dangerous climate just a few paragraphs into the novel’s first chapter, saying: “with much of Europe occupied by Nazi Germany, and Mussolini’s armies in Albania, on the Greek frontier, one wasn’t sure what came next. So, don’t trust the telephone. Or the newspapers. Or the radio. Or tomorrow.”
This setting is the backdrop for the story of police detective Costa Zannis. Ever the discreet agent, Zannis is used to willingly gloss over delicate issues. Now he must contend with harsh new dangers and uncertainties, says Furst, who will discuss the book Thursday at an event hosted by Writers Bloc in Beverly Hills.
Furst says he chose Salonika as the book’s principal location because it was crucial to the German invasion of the country in 1941. (The Germans then occupied Greece until 1944.) As always, Furst was meticulous in his historical research, in this case prewar Greece, consulting the writings of foreign correspondents and travel writers as well as historical documents. He created the story of Zannis and his circumstances from these records. Explaining his reliance on source materials, Furst jokes, “I am incapable of making up a plot.”
That’s unlikely; Furst’s literary thrillers have been likened to the works of Eric Ambler, Graham Greene and John le Carré. After getting his start as a magazine writer, Furst wrote four suspense novels. It wasn’t until the late 1980s, however, when Furst visited Moscow, that he delved into the genre of historical espionage.
Furst, who grew up in Manhattan and lives in Long Island, was both shocked and intrigued by Russia’s police-state repression. He thought that, because of the country’s twisted politics, the setting would be ideal for a spy novel. He also noted that the topic of Russia and its history was a subject Russians themselves could not write about due to restrictions on creative expression. He decided to tackle the subject matter himself.
“I took it on as a personal ... religion,” Furst says, searching for the right word. “I was inspired, empowered and motivated.” He published “Night Soldiers” in 1988, setting it in Bulgaria, Spain, France and the Soviet Union. But instead of describing the present, the novel opens in 1934, telling the story of a young boy who works as a Soviet spy. The book became a bestseller, the first of many to follow, including “Kingdom of Shadows,” “Blood of Victory,” “Dark Voyage,” “The Foreign Correspondent” and “The Spies of Warsaw.” Poland, Germany, Hungary, Italy and Czechoslovakia were among the European countries where he set the stories. But while the locations varied, the World War II era remained consistent.
The time period intrigues Furst because World War II embodies the struggle of “good versus evil,” which he considers an ideal theme for literary exploration. He says that the war was “big and intense” and that “it was not a given that the democratic countries would win. People felt like it was liable to go on for the rest of their lives.” Furst says his books pose a personal question to each reader: “How would you react in this situation?”
Dubbing it “near history,” Furst said he is also attracted to the era because of its relation to the present. The events of the war are recent enough that modern readers are familiar with them, but far enough in the past to allow for distance and perspective.
“Readers today understand that they’re lucky and privileged,” he says, speaking on the phone from his hotel in San Francisco, where he’s promoting the new book. “War could happen again. It never seems to stop, it’s like a virus.” However, he notes that “I don’t have any answers for that.”