Book review: 'Spies of the Balkans' by Alan Furst

Los Angeles Times

The Cold War's abrupt conclusion seemed to take a good bit of the narrative wind out of the espionage genre's sails.

Partly, that had to do with the way the conflict ended — only a handful of prescient and implacably anti-communist historians and intellectuals had foreseen that, once contained, the Soviet bloc simply would collapse under its own weight. Partly, it had to do with the loss of that forces-of-light versus forces-of-darkness dichotomy provided by the global struggle between Soviet-style Marxism and the Western democracies.

Still, humanity's triumph seemed — superficially, at least — popular literature's loss. The English-language espionage novel has long been a favorite of first-rate writers who wanted to engage serious questions in an entertaining way. Graham Greene, John le Carré and Eric Ambler, for example, made masterful use of the moral ambiguities arising out of the dark struggle with the East. That era clearly is over, but American writer Alan Furst has spent the last two decades breathing a fresh vitality and relevance into the espionage novel by fusing it with impeccable historical fiction.

Furst's "Spies of the Balkans" is the 11th in a kind of series — all set in Europe during what Auden called that "low dishonest decade" that concluded with the onset of World War II. Like Furst's 2008 bestseller, "The Spies of Warsaw," this new novel is wonderfully realized — intelligent, entertaining and ultimately thought-provoking. There's also a fine, pared-down clarity to Furst's prose, and readers may find they're a fair distance into his engrossing story before they realize just how accomplished a writer he is, and how well-suited his style is to the engrossing complexities of a good spy novel.

"Spies of the Balkans" is set primarily in the northeastern Greek city of Salonika, an ancient and famously polyglot place only recently returned to Athens' sovereignty by the second Balkan War. The action, which is propulsively nonstop, occurs over the crucial seven-month period between late 1940 and the Nazi invasion of Greece in the spring of 1941. Furst's engaging protagonist is a "senior official" of the Salonika police, Constantine (Costa) Zannis. His personal qualities — a rare disinterest in bribes, an unfailing discretion and a wide-ranging competence that allows him to navigate back alleys and exclusive private clubs — have attracted the notice and patronage of the city's 80-year-old police commissioner, Vangelis.

This legendary figure of immense power and influence has come to regard Costa as a "godson" and has selected him to head a special bureau whose duties are so politically sensitive that it goes unnamed. Even Costa's rank is — to most people he meets — mysterious, and he simply is known to all as "a senior police official." His two assistants are the detective Saltiel, a member of Salonika's storied Sephardic Jewish community, and Sibylla, a preternaturally efficient clerk/secretary.

The 40-year-old Costa is "a man of average height, with a thick muscular body and only an inch of belly above his belt. Skin a pale olive color, not bad-looking at all though more boxer than movie star, a tough guy in the way he moved, in the way he held himself. Until you looked at his face, which suggested quite a different sort of person. Wide generous mouth and, behind, steel-framed eyeglasses, very blue eyes: lively eyes…"

Costa is also a man who loves women, though he's not a womanizer: Over the course of the story he will find himself passionately but serially involved with three beautiful, fascinating women.

From the book's opening pages, Costa finds himself enmeshed in the spy wars for which the port city of Salonika was a particular hotbed. It's generally assumed that it's only a matter of time until the Axis forces push south into the Balkans, and Nazi agents are operating with growing impunity throughout the area. So too is British intelligence, which already has its eye on Costa from a vantage point it would spoil the plot to disclose. He's a particular catch for anybody's spymasters: An adolescence spent working in his uncle's very shady Parisian antiques business not only has amplified Costa's natural Salonikan multilingualism, it also has made him understand how important it is to be a person who "knows people who know people."

That quality comes crucially into play when a beautiful, desperate German Jewish aristocrat, Emelia Krebs, persuades Costa to help her obtain Turkish visas for two Jewish children she has snatched from the Nazis' clutches. Before he knows it, Emelia — whose Aryan husband is a colonel on the German General Staff — has prevailed on Costa's instinctive decency and reflexive loathing of the fascist powers to help her run an escape line for Jews and anti-Nazi intellectuals through Hungary and the Balkans into Turkey. (It helps to have contacts in the Budapest underworld and the Serbian and Bulgarian police, as well as access to funds through the ask-no-questions Vangelis.)

Costa's sideline soon attracts the attention of the British, who strong-arm him into going to Paris to rescue a downed English airman in possession of scientific secrets that can't be allowed to fall into German hands. The Brits' arrangements go awry, however, and after killing one SS officer and wounding another, Costa is forced to call on his shady but loving uncle's connections with French gangsters to get out of occupied France, a feat that only increases all the intelligence agencies' interests in the resourceful Greek cop.

When the Gestapo tumbles to Emelia's end of the escape line in Berlin and the Nazis invade Greece, there's a desperate rush to see whether Costa's family and all those he cares about — including the new love of his life — can escape Salonika for the safety of Alexandria and Turkey. It would spoil the several credible plot twists at the climax to say more.

Just as Greene et al were adept at invoking the Cold War's moral ambiguities, Furst does a remarkable job of re-creating the contingent qualities of the choices people had to make in an era when many leading thinkers and average individuals alike believed that democracy was finished and that the only realistic choice was between left- and right-wing authoritarianism. It does this author's fiction no disservice to say that his view of historical contingency is inflected by an American optimism about the persistence of human decency — and, equally important, about the profound influence of that decency, even when it is in the minority.

"Spies of the Balkans" is a thoroughly enjoyable, unexpectedly stimulating and truly accomplished novel that deserves a wide audience.

timothy.rutten@latimes.com

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