By Patrick Anderson
Monday, June 21, 2010; C01
SPIES OF THE BALKANS
By Alan Furst
Random House. 268 pp. $26
I read my first Alan Furst novel nine years ago and urged Book World's readers to do themselves a favor and seek out everything this talented writer had in print. Now, having read Furst's 11th and latest novel, "Spies of the Balkans," I find that my advice holds. About all that has changed since 2001 is that Furst was relatively unknown then, and today he is widely recognized as one of the finest spy novelists active.
Furst has made a specialty of portraying conflicting intelligence agencies -- usually the Nazis vs. the communists, the British or the French Resistance -- in the years before and during World War II. Like many of today's best spy novelists -- such as Robert Littell, Daniel Silva and The Post's David Ignatius -- Furst began as a journalist, and his books combine exhaustive research with exceptional narrative skill. Few writers have brought the Hitler era so vividly, painfully to life.
Furst tends to alternate between long, complex novels that span several years, such as "Night Soldiers" and "The Polish Officer," and shorter, more narrowly focused ones. The latter include "Kingdom of Shadows," in which a Paris-based Hungarian aristocrat returns home to oppose a Nazi takeover, and now "Spies of the Balkans," in which a Greek police officer joins the anti-Nazi underground even as Hitler's army is poised to invade his country.
The policeman, Constantine Zannis, is an honest but pragmatic fellow who handles sensitive political assignments in the Greek city of Salonika. As "Spies of the Balkans" opens, in 1940, it seems likely that the Germans will invade Greece soon. When that happens, Zannis plans to join forces that will resist the invaders from bases in the mountains. In the meantime, the plot is built around three missions that the anti-Nazi policeman undertakes. First, he helps a wealthy Jewish woman in Berlin smuggle her friends to safety. In another mission, he journeys to German-occupied Paris, where he works with the French Resistance to help an English scientist escape. Finally, using his police contacts and credentials, Zannis goes to Belgrade to assist in an anti-Nazi coup d'etat. All these adventures are exciting and entirely persuasive.
Furst understands the big, strategic picture in wartime Europe, but one of the pleasures of his books is the wealth of small details that glitter in the fictional mosaics. Lest we forget the bloody history of the Balkans, he shows us a tower of skulls the invading Turks built in the 19th century, using "the severed heads of Serbian rebels." There is often a timelessness in Furst's work. For example, "Spring, the war-fighting season in Europe, was just beginning: once the fields were planted, the men of the countryside would take up their weapons, as they had since the Middle Ages." He even introduces a cynical SS officer who reflects, "The joke about Nazi racial theory said that the ideal superman of the master race would be as blond as Hitler, as lean as Göring, and as tall as Goebbels." The publicity that arrived with the novel asserted that it has more romance than Furst's previous books, and, as best I can recall, that's true. Zannis is 40, handsome and single, and although busy opposing the Nazis, he manages to meet no fewer than five attractive women in the few months of the story. Two of the women are too high-minded (or perhaps too busy) to succumb to his charms -- the Jewish woman in Berlin and an "aristocratic" Resistance fighter in Paris -- but three others are readily available: a British woman who proves to be a spy, an ex-girlfriend who keeps turning up and the gorgeous young wife of a rich, dangerous Greek tycoon.
Zannis and this beautiful woman ("Olive skin, golden hair -- truly gold, not blond -- pulled straight back, eyes just barely suggesting an almond shape, as though wrought by a Byzantine painter") fall in love. Their affair is nicely handled, but it remains rather improbable given everything else Zannis has on his plate. Still, novels about the Nazi takeover of Europe aren't a bundle of laughs, and Furst may have decided to lighten the mood this time. As the novel ends, the Nazis are invading Greece, but Furst manages to have a number of people escape to freedom who might just as easily have been captured, tortured, killed or sent to the death camps. Their good fortune may be unlikely, but I bought it. The elegance of Furst's style works its magic. If you haven't read him, this is a perfectly good place to start, but after this book I suggest you go back to the earlier ones and work your way forward. You won't regret it.
Anderson regularly reviews thrillers and mysteries for The Post.