Signature Suspense In Furst's 'Spies Of The Balkans'

Spies Of The Balkans
Spies Of The Balkans
By Alan Furst
Hardcover, 288 pages
Random House
List price: $26

Read An Excerpt

In the latest of what he calls "historical espionage" novels, spy writer Alan Furst is working at the top of his powers. Spies of the Balkans takes us to Salonika in 1940 — just as Mussolini has decided to invade Greece — and carries us along with convincing historical details and heart-pounding plot-making. This fine mix gives the brutal military and social history of Europe in World War II a feeling perspective.

On the face of it, the creation of atmosphere would appear to be both Furst's greatest strength and his stylistic signature. Look at the books he has turned out over the past decade and more: From 1988's Night Soldiers through this current work, each features an utterly vivid setting, from Paris to Warsaw and Berlin to Istanbul, with Amsterdam's numerous train stations in between.

Furst's spy novels derive their authenticity from a thousand details: the nicknames for prostitutes of a certain Paris district, the description of the insignia on the old Hungarian currency, the taste of a certain French country cheese. But they also thrive on a suppleness of prose, as when, say, a major character in Blood of Victory (2002) walks into a Bucharest night club and sees the Momo Tsipler Orchestra, "five of them," Furst writes, "including the oldest cellist in captivity, as well as a tiny violinist, wings of white hair fluffed out above his ears, Rex the drummer, Hoffy on the clarinet, and Momo himself, a Viennese Hungarian in a metallic green dinner jacket."

Alan Furst i

Alan Furst's works include Night Soldiers, Blood of Victory and The Foreign Correspondent. hide caption

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Alan Furst

Alan Furst's works include Night Soldiers, Blood of Victory and The Foreign Correspondent.

But, clearly, Furst's talent doesn't just lie in the rendering of atmosphere. As his major task, he takes on the creation of fascinating characters, rooted in time and place. Employing the techniques of classical scene-making that have stood realistic novelists in good stead ever since Flaubert, Furst draws us into the world of a Macedonian police detective. Costa Zannis is a canny Salonika investigator with a lot of local political connections, a British girlfriend, a mother and a dog.

Before we know it, his moral hackles have risen and he's created a network to help a Jewish woman from Berlin smuggle German Jews targeted for arrest down through the Balkans to Turkey. You watch Zannis' morality grow, almost as though it's a flower in a stop motion film. One minute he's tending to the petty needs of Salonika's rich, carrying on an affair with a woman who turns out to be a British agent; the next he's seized by a conviction to undermine the coming Nazi rule, or at least doing what he can to chip away at it, one fugitive at a time.

It's thrilling in itself to witness this, and when Zannis wades out into the field, taking trains to meet other anti-Nazi police personnel or, toward the end of the book, traveling to Paris to do some work for British Intelligence, the suspense intensifies all the more. Ah, the strange metaphysics of reading a good novel! As you turn Furst's pages, you translate the narrative in your mind into one of the best spy films you've ever seen.

Excerpt: 'Spies Of The Balkans'

Spies of the Balkans
Spies of the Balkans
By Alan Furst
Hardcover, 288 pages
Random House
List price: $26

In autumn, the rains came to Macedonia.

The storm began in the north — on the fifth day of October in the year 1940 — where sullen cloud lay over the mountain villages on the border of Bulgaria and Greece. By midday it had drifted south, heavier now, rolling down the valley of the Vardar River until, at dusk, it reached the heights of the city of Salonika and, by the time the streetlamps came on, rain dripped from the roof tiles in the ancient alleyways of the port and dappled the surface of the flat, dark sea.

Just after six in the evening, Costa Zannis, known to the city as a senior police official — whatever that meant, perhaps no more than a suit instead of a uniform — left his office on the top floor of an anonymous building on the Via Egnatia, walked down five flights of creaky wooden stairs, stepped out into the street, and snapped his umbrella aloft. Earlier that day he'd had a telephone call from the port captain, something to do with the arrival of the Turkish tramp freighter Bakir — "an irregularity" was the phrase the captain used, adding that he preferred to pursue the matter in person. "You understand me, Costa," he'd said. Oh yes, Zannis understood all too well. At that moment, Greece had been ruled by the Metaxas dictatorship since 1936 — the length of women's skirts was regulated; it was forbidden to read aloud the funeral oration of Pericles — and people were cautious about what they said on the telephone. And, with much of Europe occupied by Nazi Germany, and Mussolini's armies in Albania, on the Greek frontier, one wasn't sure what came next. So, don't trust the telephone. Or the newspapers. Or the radio.

Or tomorrow.

Entering the vast street market on Aristotle Square, Zannis furled his umbrella and worked his way through the narrow aisles. Rain pattered on the tin roofing above the stalls, fishmongers shouted to the crowd, and, as Zannis passed by, the merchants smiled or nodded or avoided his eyes, depending on where they thought they stood with the Salonika police that evening. A skeletal old woman from the countryside, black dress, black head scarf, offered him a dried fig. He smiled politely and declined, but she thrust it toward him, the mock ferocity of her expression meaning that he had no choice. He tore the stem off, flicked it into the gutter, then ate the fig, which was fat and sweet, raised his eyebrows in appreciation, said, "It's very good, thank you," and went on his way. At the far end of the market, a sponge peddler, a huge sack slung over his shoulder, peered anxiously out at the rain. Marooned, he could only wait, for if his sponges got wet he'd have to carry the weight for the rest of the night.

The customshouse stood at the center of the city's two main piers, its function stated on a broad sign above the main entry, first in Greek, then with the word Douane. On the upper floor, the port captain occupied a corner office, the sort of office that had over the years become a home; warm in the chilly weather, the still air scented with wood smoke and cigarettes, one of the port cats asleep by the woodstove.

On the wall behind the desk hung a brightly colored oleograph of Archbishop Alexandros, in long black beard and hair flowing to his shoulders, hands clasped piously across his ample stomach. By his side, formal photographs of a stern General Metaxas and a succession of port officials of the past, two of them, in fading sepia prints, wearing the Turkish fez. On the adjoining wall, handsomely framed, were the wife and children of the present occupant, well fed, dressed to the hilt, and looking very dignified.

The present occupant was in no hurry; a brief call on the telephone produced, in a fewminutes, awaiter froma nearby kafeneion — coffeehouse — with two tiny cups of Turkish coffee on a brass tray.

After a sip, the captain lit a cigarette and said, "I hope I didn't get you down here for nothing, Costa. In such miserable fucking weather."

Zannis didn't mind. "It's always good to see you," he said. "The Bakir, I think you said. Where's she berthed?"

"Number eight, on the left- hand side. Just behind a Dutch grain freighter — a German grain freighter now, I guess."

"For the time being," Zannis said.

They paused briefly to savor the good things the future might hold, then the captain said, "Bakir docked this morning. I waited an hour, the captain never showed up, so I went to find him. Nothing unusual, gangplank down, nobody about, so I went on board and headed for the captain's office, which is pretty much always in the same place, just by the bridge. A few sailors at work, but it was quiet on board, and going down the passageway toward the bridge I passed the wardroom. Two officers, gossiping in Turkish and drinking coffee, and a little man in a suit, with shiny shoes, reading a newspaper. German newspaper. Oh, I thought, a passenger."

"See his face?"

"Actually I didn't. He was behind his newspaper — Völkischer Beobachtr? I believe it was. Anyhow, I didn't think much about it. People get around these days any way they can, and they don't go anywhere at all unless they have to."

"Submarines."

The captain nodded. "You may just have to swim. Eventually I found the captain up on the bridge — a man I've known for years, by the way — and we went back to his office so I could have a look at the manifest. But — no passenger. So, I asked. 'Who's the gent in the wardroom?' The captain just looked at me. What a look!"

"Meaning ... ?"

"Meaning Don't ask me that. Life's hard enough these days without this sort of nonsense."

Zannis's smile was ironic. "Oh dear," he said.

The captain laughed, relieved. "Don't be concerned, you mean."

From Zannis, a small sigh. "No, but it's me who has to be concerned. On the other hand, as long as he stays where he is . . . What's she carrying?"

"In ballast. She's here to load baled tobacco, then headed up to Hamburg."

"You didn't happen to see the passenger come this way, did you?"

"No, he hasn't left the ship."

Zannis raised an eyebrow. "You're sure?"

"I've had a taxi waiting out there all afternoon. If he tries to enter the city, two beeps on the horn."

This time the sigh was deeper, because Zannis's plans for the evening had vanished into the night. "I'll use your telephone," he said. "And then I'll take a little walk."

Excerpted from Spies of the Balkans by Alan Furst. Excerpted by permission of Random House Group, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved.

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