'Spies Of The Balkans' Detective Helps Fleeing Jews

Alan Furst talks to Steve Inskeep about his new novel Spies of the Balkans. The thriller focuses on Costa Zannis, a police official in the northern Greek port city of Salonika. It's 1940, and Zannis is helping to transport German Jews from Berlin through Greece to neutral Turkey. Hitler's army hasn't invaded Greece yet, but everybody knows they're coming.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Alan Furst writes a very specific kind of novel. In book after book, his characters struggle to survive the start of World War II.

Mr. ALAN FURST (Author, "Spies of the Balkans"): There's 11 of these now.

INSKEEP: And they're all part of the same story, aren't they?

Mr. FURST: It's all a series except that the lead character changes in every book.

INSKEEP: But every now and again, there's a subsidiary character who shows up.

Mr. FURST: Oh, yes, all the time. Ships reappear sometimes under different names. There's always a scene in a place called the Brasserie Heininger in Paris in every book, but the angle of perception is different every time.

INSKEEP: In his latest book, the angle of perception is that of a police officer in Greece. The book is called "Spies of the Balkans. The cop named Zannis works in the old port city of Salonika. He's put all his knowledge of the city in a private file of five by eight cards.

Mr. FURST: Thus, it included cards for ship owners and bankers, Greek Orthodox prelates, consuls, spies, journalists, politicians, high-class criminals and courtesans - anybody who mattered.

INSKEEP: The detective works those connections. He chases German spies and helps out fugitive Jews. Hitler's army has not invaded Greece yet, but everybody knows they're coming.

Its 1940, the dark period that Alan Furst explores again and again.

Mr. FURST: It really began to look like Hitler and Mussolini were going to win. By 1943, in the winter, it became rather clear that Hitler was going to lose. And I dont write anything after 1942 because then it became, how can we survive until the end of this thing. Whereas before that, it was, my God, we're going to lose, what shall we do? Is there any way we can win? It's two very different things.

INSKEEP: And you have people dealing with this terrible moral dilemma of perhaps how do they reconcile themselves to living under a terrible, terrible regime?

Mr. FURST: It was almost impossible to do. You were damned no matter what you did. What I like to say about the period is that you didnt have a lot of choices. You could be a hero. You could be a coward. You could be a villain or you could be a victim. Pick.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Or you could run away. You have, in this novel, "Spies of the Balkans," the story of a prominent banker who seems to have received a little bit of information that the axis powers might be about to invade, and he clears out his bank accounts and runs for it - disappears.

Mr. FURST: Yes, he does. And for the hero of this book who is a policeman in the city of Salonika, it's his first inkling of whats coming. He's very upset by it. He realizes that a city that he's grown up in, a city that he loves is about to be torn to pieces. And he's responsible. You got to remember, the cops are the people who are the last people to stand in the way of chaos and brutality.

INSKEEP: How do you research that year - 1938, 1939, 1940 - whichever year it might be?

Mr. FURST: I read a lot of books by foreign correspondents. They would have a three-year stint in Budapest or a two-year stint in Bucharest. And when they finally got back to London or Chicago or whatever it was, they would always write a book. The book was always called "Flames Over Europe." They always told people exactly what was going to happen and they were never believed.

INSKEEP: Hmm. Then the material is there for you to pick up on...

Mr. FURST: And then theyve left it there for me. This one guy in Bucharest went out one night and met a young woman. And they went off to her apartment to spend the night. And when he got home the next morning, he discovered there was a black hole in the middle of his mattress and that during the night somebody had fired a pistol up through the ceiling that went through - where the bullet went through his bed.

INSKEEP: Thats a true story?

Mr. FURST: Thats a true story.

INSKEEP: I bet that there are people who have read books about World War II -history books about World War II all their lives and have barely paid attention to Greece's role in this war. I wonder what drew you to that.

Mr. FURST: Namely me. I discovered after 10 books - I was a spy novelist of sorts - that I'd never written about the Balkans. And I gave myself a big D-U-H exclamation point, for that...

INSKEEP: Hmm.

Mr. FURST: ...for discovering it late. And then I thought Im going to write about Balkan Greece. And I then discovered that there was a very good story about Balkan Greece.

INSKEEP: I wanted to ask about a specific event that you describe here, because Im curious if your research suggests that something like this really happened.

There is a scene in which a military officer calls together the leading citizens of the city, and essentially says, a German invasion is likely coming. We dont know exactly when. We're going to lose and when that invasion comes we want you to flee. Because otherwise the Germans will just take you and we won't be able to use you to rebuild the country after the war.

Mr. FURST: I doubt, very much, that that ever happened in a meeting format. Thats a novelist trick. On the other hand, I can assure you that when a city is under the kind of threat that Salonika was, the people who are truly responsible for running that city and running the nation will try to preserve, if they can, the people whose job it will be to rebuild the country after they lose the war. No question about that.

INSKEEP: You know, I think some of my favorite characters over the years that I've read are the ones who are not sure what to do, who seem to be struggling for some moral clarity about what makes the most sense for them. I wonder if those are your favorite characters.

Mr. FURST: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely because those are the readers of the book; those are the people who are going to say, well, what would I do - and no kidding, what would I do? What would I really do? It's always nice to think that you would be a hero. On the other hand, that might have something to do with whats going to happen to your wife, whats going to happen to your children, whats going to happen to your parents. It's not a clean business.

You know a lot of books, which are in one way or another action books, the hero has none of these concerns, nor would the heroine have any of these concerns. They're loners completely. There is no Mrs. James Bond. There is no Mother Bond for him to worry about. And there is no little Junior Bond playing on the soccer team.

I prefer to have the people who play the lead roles in the book to have lives, just like the readers have lives.

INSKEEP: Hmm. Do you ever get tired of this period? The Casablanca Period is the way I like to think of it. It's like the movie "Casablanca," you know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FURST: That is...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FURST: That's the name.

INSKEEP: And I never - I got to tell you, I never get tired of watching that movie over and over again. And I wonder if you ever get tired writing about it.

Mr. FURST: I dont. I dont. You know, the human spirit was at its worst and at its best. Dont ask me why. It just was. And this period, 1933 to 1942, I've begun to think of it as an enormous room with a thousand corners. There are so many stories and so many places, all of them so different. So it's always up to me to find a great - another great story.

INSKEEP: The latest novel by Alan Furst is called "Spies of the Balkans." Thanks very much.

Mr. FURST: Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Steve Inskeep.

DEBORAH AMOS, host:

And Im Deborah Amos.

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