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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Spies of the Balkans, by Alan Furst (hardcover, $26)

Alan Furst is known for his sophisticated, knowledgeable World War II spy novels. His latest is this gem of a story set in 1940-41 Salonika, Macedonia, Greece. When the story begins, the Nazis have begun to invade parts of Europe, but Greece remains free ... for the moment. Police detective Costa Zannis has a good life in Salonika. He is a "special" detective; his intelligence has earned him those cases requiring delicacy and diplomacy. He is protected by the police commissioner to whom he is like a son. His British girlfriend and he have fun in a beautiful city that sparkles with life and good food. His colleagues are loyal and honest. He even has the world's smartest dog, Melissa.

Then Costa's girlfriend, who turns out to be a British spy, hastily departs, a beautiful German woman begs him to help her form a pipeline to help Jews escaping from Berlin, and the guns of war pull closer to Salonika. Despite the sudden disruption and danger brought into his life, Costa never hesitates. He knows what is right and, although it may be difficult, he never waivers from his mission to fight the Nazis. In a clever fashion, he builds the pipeline from Berlin to neutral Turkey. In just a few months, his whole life is re-fashioned.

Furst takes his readers through the Balkan countries and shows us the confusion, tension, and bravery of its doomed inhabitants. The author is able to infuse his writing with the thoughts and ethos of a country. We are there. And we are there not as Americans but as the Greeks, the French, the Germans, the Yugoslavians, the Albanians. Reading this book is almost like watching a black and white film from the 1940s: the stylish setup, the dramatic breaks, the dialogue that sounds just right.

Although the book as a whole is somber and the period of time is one of the darkest, this is one example of the lightly amusing touches Furst adds to his book. In a ham-fisted way Costa has managed to do it, but it is Sibylla, Costa's secretary, who has just the right touch with an iron to bring out the "invisible" ink in secret messages without burning them.

My confession is that I had to bone up on some Wikipedia history and geography as I read this book. Furst is not here to be a history professor, so his plot jumps right into the action. Geographic demarcations, as we know from recent Balkan unrest, change. National alliances made during WWII have changed. Furst lets us follow a dangerous part of history that is becoming increasingly alien to us from a safe vantage point.

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