The Spies of the Balkans by Alan Furst, Review

There is no more intelligent or gripping writer of spy fiction today than Alan Furst, says Michael Korda, and his new novel captures Europe in the middle of war in 1941.

There are two schools of spy fiction: The first is glossy, techno-oriented, full of spectacular violence and even more spectacular sex, the prime example of which are Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels (and the posthumous sequels); and the second, the back-streets, seedy, morally ambiguous world that was virtually created by Eric Ambler and Graham Greene, and very successfully continued by John le Carré. In the first kind, the “good guys” and the “bad guys” are easily distinguished one from the other, and in the second there are no good guys or bad guys, the villain is the state, or history, and the spy/hero is a deeply conflicted figure, and by no means an attractive or athletic person (George Smiley, for example, is overweight, a cuckold, and in many ways not dissimilar from his KGB opponents).

All I can say is that Eric Ambler and Graham Greene would have read his books with pleasure, and that somebody like Orson Welles could have made a marvelous movie.

Note too that both kinds of spy novels, from E. Phillips Oppenheim and John Buchan on to John le Carré and Len Deighton, are essentially British, indeed it is something of a British specialty, like bespoke tailoring, kippers, and the royal family, one of those things that the British remain good at, despite the general collapse of the United Kingdom as a great power, and its steady reduction to a small, bankrupt island nation off the coast of Europe.

It is therefore with some nostalgic regret that I have to record that the successful spy novel now tends to come from these shores and not from the U.K., and that perhaps the best and most readable of current spy novelists is an American, Alan Furst, who seems to have managed to recreate the seedy atmosphere and conflicted heroes of Ambler and Greene, though without the acid precision and elegance of the former or the religious guilt of the latter, not to speak of the political ambivalence of “Greeneland,” whose creator memorably said, “I would rather betray my country than my friends.”

Clearly, however, the laurels of spy fiction writing have passed into American hands for the time being, which is all the more surprising because Furst navigates the same universe of moral confusion and overwhelming state terror that was the background for so many of the great British spy novels. His latest (and in my opinion, best) novel, The Spies of the Balkans, in fact, shares the same background that fascinated Ambler and Greene, the Balkans, and the same period of British retreat and Nazi advance, in this case 1941, before the German invasion of the Soviet Union and Pearl Harbor brought two more great powers into the war, and finally made it apparent that however many millions of people the Germans murdered, the war was going to be won by the Allies.

John Avlon: Why Glenn Beck’s Bad Novel Is a Must ReadIn 1941, this was by no means apparent or clear to most people. France was defeated and occupied; the British army in the Middle East was about to be thrown back to the Egyptian frontier and was dangerously overextended by Churchill’s decision to come to the aid of Greece; the U-boat war in the North Atlantic threatened to cut off Britain’s supply line; the euphoria of the RAF victory in the Battle of Britain was long since over; Germany held most of Europe, from the old Curzon Line in Poland to the Pyrenees, and from Norway to the borders of Greece and Yugoslavia. The possibility of America’s entry into the war seemed more remote than ever, and there was nobody in the United Kingdom, from the prime minister down to the ordinary man and woman in the street, who could imagine any way in she might actually win the war, short of some miracle.

Italy had joined the war in June 1940, ignominiously attacking France after she had already been defeated by the Germans—“The hand that held the dagger has plunged it in his neighbor’s back,” as FDR put it—and since then had been further humiliated by a defeat in North Africa, from which the Italian army had only been rescued by the arrival of General Erwin Rommel, following which the Duce planned to regain his self-respect by attacking Greece from Italian-occupied Albania.

The threat looming over Greece, not from the Italian army, which the plucky little Greek army beat back with contemptuous ease, but from the German army—for the Führer, though infuriated at the delay a conquest of the Balkans would impose on his attack against the Soviet Union, was in no way prepared to stand by while his fellow dictator was humiliatingly defeated by a small and poverty-stricken country—was, in the early months of 1941 a constant threat, producing in the Balkans a brooding atmosphere of fear, despair, and treachery, as people prepared for the catastrophe to come one way or the other, hesitating between flight, collaboration, and resistance, for nobody supposed that the German army could be stopped, or that German occupation would be anything but brutal and savage.

This is the atmosphere that Furst brilliantly recreates, and places in that most ambiguous of Balkan cities, Salonika (now Thessaloniki), once ruled by the Turks, occupied by the French in World War One, and with a mixed population of ethnic Greeks, Jews, and refugees from all over Europe. Furst’s hero is Constantine (“Costa”) Zannis, a “senior police official” who works in a shadowy office that handles “political” affairs. Zannis is not a “superhero,” but a bureaucrat (though he wins a medal for his courage when he is called up by the army to fight the Italians), with a “rabbi,” as they say in the NYPD, high up in the Salonika Police Department. He is an attractive and sympathetic man, with a flashy ex-mistress and a current mistress, who, as we soon begin to suspect, but Costa does not, is a British spy. In the febrile atmosphere of Greece waiting for the onslaught everyone knows is coming, secret agents are proliferating. Costa finds himself persuaded by a beautiful German woman (a Jew married to a German army colonel) to help her smuggle German Jews via Budapest and Belgrade to Turkey, meets a suave British travel writer—a figure not unlike Greene himself, who was both the author of spy novels and an agent of MI6—pursues the beautiful wife of a Greek shipping tycoon (think Aristotle Onassis). He lives in a heady atmosphere of intrigue, betrayal, and the kind of erotic passion that impending catastrophe brings out in people who have everything to lose.

Good as Furst is on background, he is better on character—even the smallest characters in Spies of the Balkans are as perfectly carved and etched as a netsuke: Once Furst introduces them, we would recognize them anywhere, even in an urban crowd—and weaves a wonderfully complicated plot as Costa makes his way through the dangerous underworld of Budapest, to occupied Paris, where he is obliged to kill an SS officer as he rescues a downed British airman, while he desperately tries to keep the escape route for German Jews open, and to balance the demands of the British secret service and his own determination to protect those he loves. The atmosphere of a Europe living in fear of a real and palpable evil is faultlessly conveyed, and is never for one minute allowed to become melodrama or exaggerated or ridiculous (think Quentin Tarratino’s Inglorious Bastards). Furst perfectly reproduces, in all its detail, the organized crime world of Budapest, the French resistance, the tangled web of espionage, the glittering social display of a world on the brink of ruin. Furst has the first and most important quality of an espionage novelist: a faultless eye for detail, and or national “types,” without ever falling into caricature. His British agents are recognizably British, not superspies, but worried professionals with a job to do, one of his most endearing characters is a Greek poet busy organizing a resistance group to fight the Germans in the hills, as he once fought the Turks in his youth.

To tell you what happens (and why) would be to spoil your pleasure in reading the novel. All you have to know is that you will like Costa a lot, you will be astonished (as he is) by what he manages to do under pressure, and will hope he gets his girl (even though we know he won’t), and admire Furst’s skill, which makes each page a pleasure and a surprise.

He is not in the least imitative—he has own style, and intricate sense of detail—but in his hands the mastery of the traditional spy novel has firmly passed to the other side of the Atlantic, and all I can say is that Eric Ambler and Graham Greene would have read his books with pleasure, and that somebody like Orson Welles (think of him playing Harry Lime in The Third Man) or Otto Preminger could have made a marvelous movie out of Spies of the Balkans. A pity that it probably won’t happen—somehow, Furst seems to write in black and white, not Technicolor, just as Greene did—but in the meantime, this is a book, written for adults, to sit down and read in one gulp if you can. There aren’t many of those around these days.

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New York Times bestselling author Michael Korda's books include Ike, Horse People, Country Matters, Ulysses S. Grant, and Charmed Lives.