Spies of the Balkans

Written by Alan Furst
Review by Mark F. Johnson

This latest piece of Furst’s massive WWII jigsaw puzzle opens in October 1940 in Salonika, Macedonia. “Senior Police Official” Costa Zannis is investigating a stranger who slipped in on a Turkish freighter. This seemingly routine and tedious task turns out to be anything but. Soon he is drawn into a sort of Underground Railroad for Jews escaping the Nazi terror. All the while Germany is looking for any excuse to invade the Balkans and Greece. Zannis must soon decide whether to stay and fight them in the resistance or flee with his family.

This book seems a bit of a departure for Furst. His usual incredible ability to make his readers feel as if they were there in the story is still striking. But two facets of this novel felt un-Furst-like: more detailed romantic interludes, and a minor subplot involving a trip to Paris. While a visit to Table #14 at the Brasserie Heininger, with its bullet-holed mirror and copious sauerkraut is a touchstone of most Furst novels, this particular episode felt like it was included as an afterthought. As I read through the opening two-thirds of the book, I kept wondering when Paris would come into the plotline. And then suddenly it was there and just as quickly gone. Had the whole episode been excluded entirely, the story would not have suffered. It was as if Furst had realized the omission and went back after the fact to correct it.

Aside from those two minor nitpicks, this is classic Furst, which is to say, a very intriguing, fast moving, well-written story with a sense of place that is a hallmark of the author’s style. And as always, the last page comes up much too quickly. I hope we see Costa Zannis again.