In the latest of what he calls "historical espionage" novels, spy writer Alan Furst is working at the top of his powers. Spies of the Balkans takes us to Salonika in 1940 — just as Mussolini has decided to invade Greece — and carries us along with convincing historical details and heart-pounding plot-making. This fine mix gives the brutal military and social history of Europe in World War II a feeling perspective.
On the face of it, the creation of atmosphere would appear to be both Furst's greatest strength and his stylistic signature. Look at the books he has turned out over the past decade and more: From 1988's Night Soldiers through this current work, each features an utterly vivid setting, from Paris to Warsaw and Berlin to Istanbul, with Amsterdam's numerous train stations in between.
Furst's spy novels derive their authenticity from a thousand details: the nicknames for prostitutes of a certain Paris district, the description of the insignia on the old Hungarian currency, the taste of a certain French country cheese. But they also thrive on a suppleness of prose, as when, say, a major character in Blood of Victory (2002) walks into a Bucharest night club and sees the Momo Tsipler Orchestra, "five of them," Furst writes, "including the oldest cellist in captivity, as well as a tiny violinist, wings of white hair fluffed out above his ears, Rex the drummer, Hoffy on the clarinet, and Momo himself, a Viennese Hungarian in a metallic green dinner jacket."
But, clearly, Furst's talent doesn't just lie in the rendering of atmosphere. As his major task, he takes on the creation of fascinating characters, rooted in time and place. Employing the techniques of classical scene-making that have stood realistic novelists in good stead ever since Flaubert, Furst draws us into the world of a Macedonian police detective. Costa Zannis is a canny Salonika investigator with a lot of local political connections, a British girlfriend, a mother and a dog.
Before we know it, his moral hackles have risen and he's created a network to help a Jewish woman from Berlin smuggle German Jews targeted for arrest down through the Balkans to Turkey. You watch Zannis' morality grow, almost as though it's a flower in a stop motion film. One minute he's tending to the petty needs of Salonika's rich, carrying on an affair with a woman who turns out to be a British agent; the next he's seized by a conviction to undermine the coming Nazi rule, or at least doing what he can to chip away at it, one fugitive at a time.
It's thrilling in itself to witness this, and when Zannis wades out into the field, taking trains to meet other anti-Nazi police personnel or, toward the end of the book, traveling to Paris to do some work for British Intelligence, the suspense intensifies all the more. Ah, the strange metaphysics of reading a good novel! As you turn Furst's pages, you translate the narrative in your mind into one of the best spy films you've ever seen.