Greece, 1940. Not sunny vacation Greece: northern Greece, Macedonian Greece, Balkan Greece--the city of Salonika. In that ancient port, with its wharves and warehouses, dark lanes and Turkish mansions, brothels and tavernas, a tense political drama is being played out. On the northern border, the Greek army has blocked Mussolini's invasion, pushing his divisions back to Albania--the first defeat suffered by the Nazis, who have conquered most of Europe. But Adolf Hitler cannot tolerate such freedom; the invasion is coming, it's only a matter of time, and the people of Salonika can only watch and wait.
At the center of this drama is Costa Zannis, a senior police official, head of an office that handles special "political" cases. As war approaches, the spies begin to circle, from the Turkish legation to the German secret service. There's a British travel writer, a Bulgarian undertaker, and more. Costa Zannis must deal with them all. And he is soon in the game, securing an escape route--from Berlin to Salonika, and then to a tenuous safety in Turkey, a route protected by German lawyers, Balkan detectives, and Hungarian gangsters. And hunted by the Gestapo.
Meanwhile, as war threatens, the erotic life of the city grows passionate. For Zannis, that means a British expatriate who owns the local ballet academy, a woman from the dark side of Salonika society, and the wife of a local shipping magnate.
Declared "an incomparable expert at his game" by The New York Times, Alan Furst outdoes even his own finest novels in this thrilling new book. With extraordinary authenticity, a superb cast of characters, and heart-stopping tension as it moves from Salonika to Paris to Berlin and back, Spies of the Balkans is a stunning novel about a man who risks everything to right--in many small ways--the world's evil.
Shshshshsh. Don’t tell anyone. It is 1939. In the strategic Greek port city of Salonika, rumblings of war can be heard as Nazi Germany gains allies by threat and force. People wonder only when the invasion will come. Costa Zinnis is the head of a special political branch of the police, charged with discretely managing the problems of the connected and keeping his finger on the pulse of the town. And there is plenty going on. Spies abound. A mysterious German accepts an envelope in a dark alley. Zinnis and his second pursue and the game is afoot.
Alan Furst - image from NPR- photo by Rainer Hosch
Zinnis is the core here, and a solid one. The character is both tough and appealing in the classic spy noir style, but is a bit shorter in the damaged department that that formula suggests. He loves his mother, younger brother and dog, Melissa, who is a very welcome element. There are many fine supporting players here. A wealthy German Jewish woman needs help smuggling Jews out of Germany. Zinnis’ lady friend, a Brit, owns and runs a dance school, and hangs with the Salonika movers and shakers. But is she more than she appears? His rabbi in the police is a wonderful creation, an 80-something with solid connections and a clear view ahead. A suspicious British “travel writer” makes the rounds, as do an assortment of folks from the Greek and Hungarian criminal classes. Zinnis teams up with a foreign policeman to try to affect the course of political change. It is all very hush-hush, and all very much fun to read.
Of course no spy story would be complete without a femme fatale, and Spies of the Balkans does not disappoint, although I found that element one of the weaker ones. The attraction may have fit in with the love-at-first-sight expectations one has of such tales, but it seemed forced to me, at least on his end.
The payload here is a look at what life was like in late 1930s Greece while waiting for the other shoe to drop. Mussolini, threatening to invade, is eager to keep up with his mustached German buddy, groups within nations vie for political advantage, nations look to serve their own interests at the cost of their neighbors, preparations are made for resistance. The war years are like the Bible in that the tales are eternal. Furst has written eleven novels in his “Night Soldiers” series about (mostly) Eastern Europe during World War II. Spies of the Balkans is the latest.
While reading Spies of the Balkans one cannot help but visualize the events in glorious black and white, so well does Furst capture the right feel for the genre. In the same way one wonders what Rick and Louis might get up to after Lazlo and Ilsa take flight, Spies of the Balkans leaves one wanting more. This is a fast, fun and engaging read. The secret is out.
Review to come soon!What a deeply satisfying read! I am giving this one a rating of 4.5!
This was my first book by Alan Furst and I will be on the lookout for more of his books. The story takes us back in time to the 1940s to the ancient Greek port city of Salonika. This is the time of the WW2, and intrigue and danger lurks everywhere.
We are introduced to our protagonist, Costa Zannis, a Greek police detective turned fixer who takes care of the delicate cases. He is also a reservist who would go to fight for his motherland. Our hero is a brave, good man who would selflessly risk his life for others.
Mussolini, in order to show off his power, would send his army to attack Greece. But, the Greek soldiers would keep the Italians at bay. The fear that Hitler would step in to save face of the Axis Power was pervasive. Desperate Jews are fleeing Germany with the help of a few good people.
Zannis would get embroiled in the dangerous game of intrigue. His missions would take him to Nazi territories and another Balkan country. The suspense is superb and would keep you engrossed. Spies, soldiers, resistance fighters, thieves, smugglers, informants, paramours and the common man populate the pages of this novel. There is war and intrigue, but don’t expect Rambo or James Bond – rather realistic people would do whatever they have to do.
Humans are not without their foibles. Some humans are pretty simple with simple aims in life, while others are more complex. The book boasts of some really great characters.
One of my favourite characters in the novel is Melissa. What a noble and gentle soul she is! Did I say she is also beautiful!
She would escort Zannis to his office, protect the kids on their way to school, accompany the postman on his round, protect the neighbour’s chicken coop from a marauding fox, and when the school closes would see the kids safely home.
The author has done an excellent job of evoking that time – the atmosphere – the politics-the fear - the people, and has been rightly compared with Le Carre and Graham Greene.
The book is elegantly written with some great quotes. I usually don’t add quotes from the book in my reviews. However, this particular quote resonated with me so much that I am adding it.
“Down through the endless halls of time, forever, there wasn’t a man in the world who hadn’t wanted what he’d never have.”
Furst set a very high standard for himself early in his career. He clearly owns the period from 1933-45 in Europe and is a very fine writer of historical fiction filled with intrigue and likeable characters. Over the last few years, however, he has slipped into a formulaic pattern that takes few risks and delivers few surprises. I'm not concerned with those formulaic elements that function as trademarks (protagonists who never die, Table 14 in the Brasserie Heininger in Paris with its mirror marked by a bullet hole, characters who reappear in different novels). It's more of an impression that he's started writing by the numbers -- filling in the blanks on a template because it works (at least in that it sells books). I still read everything he writes, because a mediocre Furst novel is better than the best efforts of 90% of best-selling novelists. I just want him to challenge himself a little more, to get out of his comfort zone and take some real risks as a novelist. The novelist who wrote The Polish Officer, Dark Star, Red Gold, and The World at Night is still in there somewhere, despite such mediocrities as The Foreign Correspondent. When I read Furst, I want to listen for the footsteps on the stair, to hold my breath while waiting for the knock on the door, to look anxiously over my shoulder at the black sedan crawling down a dark street -- I want to feel fear and to care passionately about what happens to people I feel I know. I want more than boilerplate scenarios translated from one European city to another. I don't want Furst to become another Bernard Cornwell, who keeps on churning out the prose after the creativity has died. One of the problems with success is that it encourages an inclination to repeat what works and a fear of failure that stifles creativity. In the meantime, I'll keep buying the books Furst writes in the hope that the fire has not gone out for good. The latest novel is better than a number of more recent ones, but it shows a few worrying trends, including talking down to the reader. I submit that anyone who needs the following explanation in the text shouldn't be reading a novel set in World War II: "'. . . the Geheime Staatspolizei.' An official title, the secret state police, simply one more government organization. But in Germany it was common usage to abbreviate this title, which came out 'Gestapo.'" I'd like to think this was the idiotic idea of an inexperienced editor. If so, one would think Random House could do better. Roald Dahl was one of the last pilots to fly in defense of Greece during the German invasion. His account of that experience could give Furst a few pointers about how to write a nail-biting, palm-sweating story about Greece as the Nazi night descended.
Not one of Furst's best efforts though I still enjoyed this trip to pre-WWII Salonika. The narrative plodded along dutifully until the last 2/3rds of the book when it became more involving. If nothing else, this novel is an interesting history lesson. Furst captured well the fear and uncertainty during the months prior to invasion and inevitably the civilian and political response to the entry of German troops into Greece and the Balkans.
No, these are not the Eric Ambler Balkans, though both series of books are set around the same time, and both involve spying. Spies of the Balkans is another of Alan Furst's looks at the inevitable start of World War Two.
In this book, the hero is Constantine Zannis, a highly placed police officer in the Greek city of Salonika. He sees the storm clouds of war gather and make their way south to the Northern border of Greece. Early in the book, he finds one way of depriving the Nazis of their prey: "arresting" Jews, taking them back to Salonika, and forwarding them on to Turkey and other places. He even smuggles a fallen British pilot from Paris to Greece via Bulgaria.
I am amazed that Furst can produce such a coherent and atmospheric series of spy thrillers with all different characters and countries. The advantage, of course, is that one does not need to start with the first novel in the series and follow the main character's development across multiple books. No, indeed, one can start anywhere.
But above all, one should start. These are great books for summer reading.
“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.” ― Alan Furst, Spies of the Balkans
(***1/2) I loved enjoyed 'Spies of the Balkans' (Night Soldiers #11). It wasn't Furst's best in the series, but it was a sweet Kataïfi of a novel. Emotionally it fed me. Furst highlights the little things people do with just a nudge here and a twist there to make a dark world just a bit better. 'Spies of the Balkans' focuses on the sacrifices people made during fascism's push into Southern Europe. The novel's center of gravity is Costa Zannis, a senior police official in Salonika, who sometimes finds his talents needed by both the Jews seeking to escape Germany and British spy networks. It is a novel that drips with the hidden goodness of those amazing men and women who refused to let dark circumstances dictate their character.
For reference, I've included below the 14 books of the Night Soldiers series along with my star rating:
A reasonable start quickly degenerates into drivel with the storyline jumping around with seemingly no real focus. The main character Costa Zannis would be better working in Costa Coffee for all the interest he generates in his role as a handler of Salonika's political cases.
I am afraid it was so bad that, try as I might, I had no option but to abandon it almost halfway through; how I got that far I am not sure but even that has taken me a couple of months because I couldn't always face trying to make much sense of it all.
It obviously suits some people because the Daily Mail wrote of it, 'As delicately crafted as John le Carre at the height of his George Smiley years, It is a delight ... quite superb.' Unfortunately not for me ... well, it takes all kinds of readers to enjoy, or otherwise, a book!
I loved this book and couldn't put it down. I bought it by chance, saw the cover, it looked interesting, read the synopsis; it sounded like a story I might like. I was right; it was great! A historical spy novel set in Greece 1940 as Greece and the Balkans prepare for the Nazi invasion. The main character is Costa Zannis, a police official who by accident almost becomes involved in working an escape route from Berlin to Salonika. He is heroic in a normal way, his friends as well. The story is so matter of fact but at the same time very exciting. Extremely well-written, it will draw you in, make you wait impatiently to see what happens next. I will definitely be reading more Alan Furst.
"...one wasn't sure what came next. So, don't trust the telephone. Or the newspapers. Or the radio. Or tomorrow.” ― Alan Furst, Spies of the Balkans
The opening scenes are straight out of film noir: dark and rainy night, mysterious stranger, rendezvous in a lonely alley. Costa Zannis is a beleaguered police officer who keeps noticing strangers ending up in Salonika as the war ramps up in Eastern Europe and threatening the Balkans and Greece. Some are simple refugees, others are clearly Jews trying to escape Nazi Germany, still others are more perplexing -- a British travel writer trekking across Greece. After he gets drawn into helping two children escape into still neutral Turkey, Costa decides to help streamline the escape route through the Balkans through his police contacts and some other more untraditional ones. In the meantime, the Italians cross into Greece, Costa is recalled into the army and discovers that his British lover is ...
Quickpaced, the story keeps moving between adventure, political intrigue, family relationships, police business all in the shadow of the coming conflict. Great stuff!
Reading Alan Furst's Night Soldiers series is a bit like reading Patrick O'Brian. Furst's first (heh) was Night Soldiers, a massive epic of war and espionage, probably the best novel about spies in the Second World War you're likely to read. But in many ways it set the parameters for his subsequent works, while Red Gold set the template. None of the other books have been as epic - except inasmuch as anything touched by the Second World War is touched by the epic - tighter, briefer, sharper, more focused. Few of them go past 1941 or '42 in timeframe. At first this can seem disappointing and the books begin to seem samey and repetitive. But, like O'Brian, they are only samey and repetitive in terms of theme and format. The broad strokes of the War are, to us, predetermined. Within those strokes wind the lives of the men and women in the secret, murky world of espionage. Describing these lives is what Furst excels at, and he has perfected that style and format. If Night Soldiers was his Epic, these are his sonnets.
Our setting is Salonika, 1940. Our slightly shabby, vaguely disreputable, incurably romantic hero is Consta Zannis, a police officer responsible for peacefully resolving knotty political difficulties. He becomes involved in a secret route for Jews and dissidents fleeing Berlin. Time, of course, is running out, and the question is how long the route can be kept open, and whether it can survive the attentions of the British Secret Service.
Drenched in atmosphere, heroism and romanticism, with doom coming down on all sides and the shady, shadowy world of criminals and spies and secret lovers intermingling, this is thrilling, tragic, marvelous stuff. A kind of escapism, sure, but of such elegance and subtlety and the sense of intelligent people making small gestures in the face of unstoppable evil, it always leaves you wanting more.
Oh dear. Chosen because it was on the TV Book Club and had some good reviews in the year. This is truely terrible.
How can anyone make WW2 boring?
Costas Zannis is a policeman in Salonika, Greece in 1941. There is a map at the start of the book. Thats always a good place to start. The work of fiction neatly explains the Balkans part in WW2 and the history of the countries in the area - Yugoslavia, Turkey and so on. This is vaguely interesting.
What fails is the story. Remember this is a work of fiction and the promise is espionage and adventure. What we have is dullness and in my opinion very bad fiction writing.
The book is only 279 pages long and it just jumps from story to story and location to location, incorporating amongst other things - a German spy who arrives by boat and dies. Move on to his ballet teaching girlfriend who at the first time of trouble, runs back to the UK. Makes a change from running back to mother. Then a downed britsh airman who need rescuing from Paris.
There is no connection (apart from Zannis, who frankly my dear, you dont give a damn about) to these events. The location and encroaching stomp of the Nazi jackboot reach to an almost exciting end to the book but even that falls on its arse.
I don't think I will be dipping into the furst ouevre again.
For sustained tension, it is difficult to match Alan Furst. His novels are set in the years leading up to and including the duration of World War II. The tension derives from the nail-biting espionage that is the main ingredient of his stories. Everyone is watchful of everyone else; no one is above suspicion. Even in scenes where Furst’s protagonist is not evading murderous counter-spies hot on his or her trail, or where split-second timing of multiple risky events is crucial to success, readers will find themselves holding their breath with expectation of what happens next.
In Spies of the Balkans, protagonist Costa Zannis masquerades—with his commissioner’s blessing—as “a senior police official” in the port city of Salonika, Greece, a job title that has him dealing with crimes both petty and prominent. But given this is 1940, and Hitler’s war-driven megalomania already has the Balkan countries in his sights, Zannis’s patriotic blood begins to boil when that poses imminent danger to Greece. His moral senses are also offended enough for him to engage in meticulously establishing an escape route out of Germany for threatened and persecuted Jews.
Zannis carefully constructs not only a geographic route to various safe havens—consisting of rail, steamship, and road segments from Berlin through Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, and other convenient cities—but also establishes trusted contacts to facilitate escapees’ movements at each stop along the way. All of it is a high-stakes game: money and basic life necessities are in short supply, which readily jeopardizes every step of the operation. Solid loyalties today are made fragile tomorrow by the sound of louder k-ching, k-ching. The most unimaginable and innocent of people are always worthy of suspicion.
Apart from his courage and quick thinking in tight situations, Zannis’s derring-do in spiriting Jews out of Germany gets noticed by the British, who sweet-talk him into another desperate mission to rescue a downed airman, Harry Byer, currently in Paris. Byer cannot be allowed to fall into German hands for he is in possession of valuable information. But occupied Paris is crawling with Germans just getting comfortable with throwing their weight around. Mission success calls into play every one of Zannis’s unusual skills in attempting to shepherd Byer out of Paris.
Despite the constant danger dogging him, and having to stay one jump ahead of sinister opposition, Zannis finds time for romance and passion. There is Roxanne, the proprietor of a ballet company; there is Tasia, a blast from Zannis’s colorful past; and there is the beautiful Demetria who seems reluctantly attached to a wealthy businessman. But in a world where even one’s own mother can be suspected of espionage, are these women all they allege to be? Zannis is cautious, but prepared to take calculated risks for true love.
Such is the authentic atmosphere of Furst’s novels that, once immersed in them—which happens quickly—readers can be forgiven for imagining being followed by shadowy figures or thinking the next phone call will send them behind enemy lines on the most dangerous of missions! But rather than periodic explosive action, Furst’s preference is to build thrilling tension that steadily increases with each turn of the page. Authentic atmosphere is also enhanced by accurate historical events as Hitler forges ahead on his plan for world domination. For an exquisite blend of entertainment and exciting drama in a World War II setting, Furst is the man to beat!
[This reviewer also recommends The Foreign Correspondent, Mission to Paris, and Midnight in Europe by the same author.]
The thing is if you’re going to title your books ‘Spies of the Balkans’ or ‘The Spies of Warsaw’ or ‘The Foreign Correspondent’ or ‘The World at Night’ - then of course I’m going to have to read them. And if they’re by Alan Furst, which they are, then I’m going to love them.
It’s his immersive and transporting mix of dark atmospherics, melancholy elegance, insouciant wit, and yes, spy shit, all saturated with key historical details that make his books such enthralling reads.
The collective darkness, all too painfully real, is what elevates these books in his Night Soldiers series beyond mere genre exercises. They subvert easy classification. Espionage thriller, romance, historical novel, or ‘political adventures’ in Furst’s words, call em what you will they are their own thing.
There is not a lot of blood work on screen in this one. It’s more about secret missions and clandestine movements and furtive communications. The central love affair is rushed into and tacked on, hackneyed in its execution, but once we’re in there it works well enough within the narrative.
A lot of the descriptions are typically awesome, the sensual stuff not overdone, and Furst loves the sensual stuff. The stare of a beautiful woman is ‘seductive, future delights suggested in the depths of her glance.’ Mischief in the eyes and the set of the mouth of the world-weary, nicotine-stained head of police, Vangelis, conveys: ‘I know the world. What a joke.’
Some trite phrases creep in—a great beauty is ‘flawless’, a handsome older man is ‘distinguished-looking’, a meanie is ‘as cold as ice’—along with some laughably macho posturing, ‘You’re not afraid of anything are you? No.’
After all the build up to a certain moment, things end rather suddenly after it, without much commentary. And I’m not sure why after such a fraught and soulful journey we end on a newspaper clipping updating us about two barely there characters in the book.
But all in all the book gets where it needs to go and it’s a helluva ride.
Furst has a talent for capturing the lesser known regions touched by World War II. Spies of the Balkans is no exception. We meet Zannis, a Greek detective who is assigned the most delicate tasks by the Commissioner of Police, a shadowy figure named Vangelis. Greece is at war with Italy and winning. It is only a matter of time before Hitler will not allow the Axis powers to be weak in any manner by going to the aid of Mussolini's troops. Meanwhile, Zannis will become involved in assisting the escape of Jews from Germany by establishing a Balkan escape route, recruiting law enforcement officers from Balkan nations. Zannis will be recruited by the English for missions as far away as France. The pace is fast. The story is complex. The characters are captivating. I recommend this one strongly.
This novel takes the reader to Greece, 1940. The Nazis are threatening to invade Greece and all the Balkans unless said governments acquiesce to Hitler's demands. The resistance is great all throughout Greece not to concede to Hitler's demands. This is where our protagonist Constantine, "Costa" Zannis comes in. He is the senior police official who handles the cases of Jews trying to escape the Occupation. Zannis is a Jew and sympathies with the Jewish refugees wanting to escape Nazi rule. This novel, per Alan Furst other novels, is filled with spying, intrigue and romance. He does not disappoint.
Greece in the early 1940s kept her wary eye on Hitler's advances through parts of Europe. Mussolini, attempting to replicate Hitler's success, decides to invade Greece, but is repelled by the Greek army. But Salonika waits for the inevitable invasion by Hitler's army and secret service.
In these uncertain times, spies with different international concerns blend into Salonika society, some catching the eye of Costa Zannis, a police inspector known for his integrity, and one with a special team, working on cases that may require discretion. As the situation for Jews in Germany worsens, he gets involved in an underground movement to rescue Jews fleeing Germany, developing a system with a Jewish wife of a high ranking German officer, and another police official in Zagreb, and helping them escape to Turkey and Egypt. If that wasn't sufficiently stressful, the British secret service seek his assistance in rescuing a British scientist who managed to get himself shot down over occupied France, and bring him back to England. As the situation in Salonika deteriorates, even his own window of opportunity to get his family and lover to leave for safer shores becomes narrower.
This is not merely a good spy thriller, it is also an excellent study in characters who believe in doing what's necessary to save humanity, even if it means putting their own lives at risk.
Πρώτη επαφή με τον Hurst και σίγουρα όχι η τελευταία.Υπεροχη αναπαράσταση της Σαλονίκης λίγο πριν την Κατοχή.Ενας ήρωας σοβαρός,ερωτύλος,αγαπάει τα σκυλιά,μια χαρά δηλαδή.Το στορι θα το έλεγα κατασκοπευτικό,η γραφή μου έφτιαξε εύκολα πολλές εικόνες στο μυαλό.Συντομα θα διαβάσω και το δευτερο βιβλιο του στα ελληνικά,το Αποστολή στο Παρίσι.Αυτά.
I've come across Alan First through Goodreads friends, so thank you to those who recommended his thrillers. In Spies of the Balkans, the Greek detective Zannis has been transferred from regular to special duties requiring political sensitivity and a talent for fixing things behind the scenes. As the threat of invasion from, first Italy, then Germany, looms over all the Balkan states, Zannis uses his skills and position to help German Jews travel to safety through territory where occupation is imminent. Furst skilfully builds the tension that comes with news of the German advances, and the shifts of power within the Balkan countries as their governments either fall in line or fall. The main characters were interestingly drawn. Few of the refugees had any real character, and the details of their escapes were sketched in but both worked well enough for the book to be an enjoyable light read in cold winter weather.
Another find at the Newberry Library Book Fair, lucky me. I will put this on the shelf to read again when locked in by winter. It was a different kind of spy book and my first with a Greek on center stage, making it all the more interesting. At times I felt the details were sparse and somewhat slim, but that equates to a book I will enjoy reading again. I did feel as though Zannis was the Accidental Spy if ever there was one - no family or educational connections leading him to what he did for a living beyond being in the right places at the right time. A different kind of spy.
Probably every Alan Furst book is a Five-Star read. Spies of the Balkans certainly is. This is Espionage writing at its best. In a few words, this story is about people with the will and determination to act and resist evil as they are nearly consumed by it, and many others were of course. When much of this was going on I wasn't ever born. However, I do recall hiding with my mother under a blanket with a flashlight during black outs. We should never forget the horrible reality of this time in our history. Only fools would want to bring any of this home. Yet today, this very thing has been brought home to many people in this world. It's time to stop pretending that it isn't happening and that we are living in a time of peace (in a fool's paradise). Alan Furst reminds us of the reality and consequences of our decisions, actions and fantasies. Let's hope we get it right!
Aegean harbors shrouded in mist, Parisian cafes crowded with SS and prostitutes, refugees sheltered in Balkan villages: once again Furst conjures up an elegant, deft, Bogart-and-Bacall tale of WWII intrigue.
It is so easy to let the modern world sink away and the curtains fall open to the soft-focus black and white screen of the Spies of the Balkans. Furst shows his most sentimental side, infusing his hero, police detective Costas Zannis, with tenderness and vulnerability, particularly when it concercens his irresistible sidekick, Melissa. That Melissa is a soulful dog, rather than one of the host of beauties who fall helplessly for Zannis at the raise of an eyebrow, makes her devotion endearing. She was my favorite character and I'm a bit heartbroken, wondering what happened to her after Germany invaded Greece, as of course you know they do in the end. Hope that wasn't a spoiler.
The hard boiled aspects of the plot suffered at the expense of romance. The Berlin to Salonika network that spirited Jews out of Germany before the Gestapo could detain and destroy them came late in the story and played too small a role in the narrative, as did the Gestapo search for Zannis. There was a strange detour into combat that disrupted the spy story tension. And frustratingly, there was only a half-finished sense of what happens inside a small but fierce nation as a cloud of doom- inevitable invasion and war- fills the horizon.
Terribly hard not to enjoy, but I know Furst is capable of tighter writing, fuller characters and breathtaking tension. This was cafe au lait to his usual double espresso.
This was not the finest Furst espionage thriller I have read. However, the good stuff first…pun unintended.
All of his novels take place in Europe during the ‘30’s and ‘40’s, leading up to the beginning of the Second World War. I lived through this historical era which not only intrigues me, but its European setting is of particular interest. Furst’s newest takes place in a lesser known geography where the ethnic tensions, eons old territorial disputes and nationalistic rivalries are always in play. Greece, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Hungary and Romania are the minor, but important characters who provide the prelude for the larger European conflict involving Italy, German, Great Britain and eventually the Soviet Union and the United States. Spies of the Balkans is at its best when establishing the atmosphere and mood of the various players in their run-up to their willing for some, and not so eager for others’ participation in the twentieth century’s worst conflagration.
Unfortunately, establishing an authentic setting can’t carry the entire book. There is practically no plot---rather simply, a series of events related to getting Jews out of Berlin and into neutral countries. The protagonist is a Greek police official with a humanitarian conscience who uses all of his considerable military, diplomatic and international law enforcement contacts to thwart Nazi genocidal goals. His efforts are successful, but his successes and the setting are the only things to cheer about in Spies of the Balkans.
# 8 - Meh. There are some things I really enjoyed about this book. Of course, it met my ongoing interest in WWII, and taught me a bit about a location of the war I was not at all familiar with (Greece, Turkey, Hungary, etc. in the Balkans). The writing was pretty good, the scenes were well described, and the plot developments were plausible (which I like even in a fiction book). During the first part of the book, I was pretty excited about the things that were set up, and was eager for the author to deliver on them. Then, once I passed the middle of the book, I realized that nothing about the story was building up the level of excitement I had come to expect! All of the plot lines wrapped up neatly, but there really wasn't any sort of climax to any of them. And that includes the 2 romance story lines for the hero - the first fit in well enough, but the second offered no justification for why the two characters were brought together. Ultimately, both romance stories seemed to have been added solely as an excuse to insert a few sexual scenes into the story (which for some reason, I felt the author did for the benefit of male readers). In conclusion, I will say that I intend to read at least one other book by this author (Spies of Warsaw) just to see if the second time around leads to any additional enthusiasm for this author!
I've read all of Alan Furst's WWII spy novels and have been entranced by almost all of them. This one is, therefore, a big disappointment. Furst's best books have vivid setting descriptions that create not only the place and times but also the atmosphere and tension of the events. Balkans has so little of this that it could be taking place on an empty sound stage. The best books have a complex characters, people who have been pulled into resistance action by the WWII events that enter their everyday lives but are not action heroes or experts. They are flawed, frightened, and struggling to survive, but compelled to take some action. Balkans main character, Costas Zannis, is flat and uninteresting. Usually in Furst's novels, the plot is intricate and told in great detail. This plot is simple and just when the reader expects a detailed description of a dangerous event, Furst skips it and reports the character safely back at his apartment. All in all, the book seems like an outline, not a fully developed novel. Hopefully, Furst will take more care with his next WWII novel and return to the level of his best work.
Something I read in Balkan Ghosts piqued my interest in Salonika/Thessaloniki: during World War II, the Nazis sent 94% of the Jews who lived in this ancient city to Auschwitz and Birkenau. Between that heartbreaking fact, and Salonika's larger history as a crossroads of empire--Byzantine and Ottoman, Bulgarian, Serbian, and Greek--I wanted to read more. And, as he tends to do, Alan Furst delivered. Sure, he's got a formula he rarely deviates from (a good-hearted everyman with a few special talents woos the ladies and solves problems large and small during the run-up to the Nazi occupation of X,Y, or Z nation) but his writing is so elegant and rich I hardly minded the repetition. A cracking thriller; sympathetic characters; a culture, time and place brought to life; thanks to Furst, I got to inhabit Salonika for a few hours.
A simply terrific novel! This eleventh offering in Furst's 'Night Soldiers' series may well be one of the very best that I've read. This is the story of how the Second World War reached the Balkan countries in 1941. The primary protagonist, Costa Zannis, is a senior Greek police official in Salonika, Greece, just south of the border with Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. Zannis knows that eventually Hitler's eyes will move south to the Balkans and he and his compatriots begin to prepare for that day.
A fascinating secondary plot-thread is woven throughout the tale that tells the story of the "underground" that moves Jewish refugees out of Nazi Germany and to freedom and safety in neutral Turkey. Costa Zannis is a good man, and the reader can't help but root for him at every turn as endeavors to do the right thing and avoid being killed in the process. I really enjoyed this very well written story that had me on the edge of my seat more times than not.
This was my second foray into Furst's historical detective/action/thriller not-really series, and I enjoyed it (although not as much as the first). Here, most of the action takes place in WWII Greece (but that's not fair to the scope of the storyline, which is far broader). The history is light, the sense of time and place is rich (and that I enjoy), but - for whatever reason - I felt that (unlike is the first book of his I read) I was less intrigued with the protagonist (who seemed like "just another detective" to me, and, alas, he tried to do too much in this (nonetheless slim) installment. Too many characters, too many "missions," too many romances, too many trips, too many crises (large and small). Nonetheless, my guess is I'll give him another try (at some point).