four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
48-Sept-Oct-2010
By: 
Alan Furst
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0

A-Spies of the BalkansAlan Furst has written 11 historical espionage novels set just prior to and during World War II, starting with Night Soldiers (1988). Reviewed: The Spies of Warsaw ( 4 of 5 Stars Sept/Oct 2008), The Foreign Correspondent ( 3 of 5 Stars Sept/Oct 2006), Dark Voyage ( 4 of 5 Stars Selection Nov/Dec 2004).

The Story: In 1940, Mussolini’s troops attempt to invade northern Greece, and the Nazis are certain to follow. As war fast approaches, Constantine ("Costa") Zannis, a senior policeman in the Greek port city of Salonika, decides to join the secret agents in the city, one now populated with ethnic Greeks, Jews, and European refugees. Allying himself with a beautiful German-Jewish woman and an anti-Nazi captain from Zagreb, he aids Jewish refugees from Germany by helping to ferry them to Turkey--and safety. As he embarks on this secret mission, Zannis, ever the ladies’ man, finds new love interests and tries to protect his family--but the risks are high.
Random House. 268 pages. $26. ISBN: 9781400066032

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 4.5 of 5 Stars
"It’s one thing to write great spy novels; it’s another thing to write great characters into spy novels. ... It’s a story of survival, of passion, of good people making difficult choices and bad people making good choices for their own reasons." Chris Foran

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"[Furst’s books are] entertainments, only with world-historical décor. But when surfaces are this polished, who misses depth? Savoir-faire and sentimentality are a hard combination to beat." Mark Feeney

Daily Beast 4 of 5 Stars
"Furst perfectly reproduces, in all its detail, the organized crime world of Budapest, the French resistance, the tangled web of espionage, the glittering social display of a world on the brink of ruin. ... He is not in the least imitative--he has own style, and intricate sense of detail. ... [All] I can say is that Eric Ambler and Graham Greene would have read his books with pleasure." Michael Korda

Denver Post 4 of 5 Stars
"While some novels are plot-driven and others are character-driven, Furst’s novels are both--but most of all they are atmosphere-driven. ... Few have written as well as Furst about this era of persecution and flight since Eric Ambler, master of sinister machinations in the shadowy byways of the globe, or, better yet, Erich Maria Remarque (Arch of Triumph, The Night in Lisbon), who had personal, contemporaneous knowledge of it." Roger K. Miller

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"Furst is brilliant at choosing the right details that catch the brave, weary mood of life during wartime. ... [His] style has gotten cooler and more economical over the last 20 years; he does more with less and implies depth of feeling through dialogue and description." Jeff Baker

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"If shades of its personal drama are by now familiar to Mr. Furst’s readers, this book’s larger and more important geography seems new. ... [U]rgent concerns about the fate of Europe easily eclipse the book’s efforts to contrive star-crossed amour." Janet Maslin

Chicago Sun-Times 3 of 5 Stars
"Furst’s encyclopedic knowledge of cultural and political relationships between Balkan states is an interwoven history lesson but at times seems too much. Since Greece hadn’t been ravaged by the Germans yet, the chaos and woe of people and landscapes in his other World War II novels is transformed into the tension and worry of an inevitable German invasion--and what to do?" Mitch Dudek

Critical Summary

Spies of the Balkans is a cut above the usual espionage fare; it excels in plot, character, and atmosphere--an unusual combination for the genre. Zannis, a younger prototype of characters seen in Furst’s previous novels, especially captivated critics, as did the author’s "Furstland," "a twilight realm of people on the run--refugees, Jews, leftists and others out of political favor" (Denver Post). Richly researched, the novel offers a compelling portrait of wartime, with few clichés. Only the Chicago Sun-Times criticized some less-developed characters and the plethora of historical detail. Most readers, however, will find that there "is no more intelligent or gripping writer of spy fiction today than Alan Furst" (Daily Beast).