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SPIES OF THE BALKANS by Alan Furst

SPIES OF THE BALKANS

By Alan Furst

Pub Date: June 15th, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-4000-6603-2
Publisher: Random House

As the Nazi invasion threat looms in Greece, a detective undertakes various secret missions in this latest from the master of European spy fiction.

Furst’s 11th novel (The Spies of Warsaw, 2008, etc.) covers the six months between October 1940 and April 1941, when German troops occupied Athens, and is set mostly in the port city of Salonika, an embarkation point for neutral Turkey. Though Greece is ruled by the dictator Metaxas, the Salonika cops have a live-and-let live attitude, personified by their deputy commander, Costa Zannis, Furst’s protagonist. The tough but likable Zannis is a Mr. Fix-It with a wide-ranging portfolio. The city is on edge with rumors about German intentions; in an early sequence, Zannis runs a German spy to ground in a warehouse. A bachelor and a ladies man, Zannis’s current girlfriend is Roxanne, an English ballet teacher, but naturally he’s happy to oblige the “stunning” Emilia Krebs, the Jewish wife of a Wehrmacht officer, who’s trying to arrange an escape route for other German Jews. After Mussolini, without Hitler’s approval, invades Greece but stumbles, her project advances; Zannis, in the mountains, recruits the anti-Nazi Pavlic, his opposite number in Zagreb. His subsequent trip to Budapest secures another part of Emilia’s pipeline. In Salonika, Zannis has a new love interest, exchanging Roxanne (a self-revealed British spy) for Demetria, gorgeous wife of a superrich banker. His attempts to free her from her gilded cage are interrupted by two more missions, these at the behest of the Brits. (Who can refuse Greece’s oldest ally?) The first takes him to Paris, to spirit away a top British asset, and the second to Yugoslavia, to assist an anti-German coup d’etat, but these episodes have no cumulative effect, and Zannis’s role as a stand-tall hero is undercut twice; in France it’s an unidentified deus ex machina who saves the day, while in Yugoslavia he’s a bit player.

There’s a scattershot quality to this Balkan imbroglio that leaves it a few notches below Furst’s best work.