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Book Author: Alan Furst

SPIES OF THE BALKANS by Alan Furst: Book Review

Salonika, Greece, in October 1940. World War II has been going on for a year, and Greece is not yet involved.  But the population knows that the invasion by the Nazi or Fascist troops cannot be far behind.  By 1941, Germany has overrun Slovakia, Hungary, Roumania (the old spelling), and Bulgaria.  Greece, with its huge coastline and its proximity to the Balkans, cannot be allowed to remain neutral.

Constantine Zannis, known as Costa, is a police detective in the port city of Salonika. He is involved with a British woman who is ostensibly in Salonika to run a ballet school, but that is merely her cover.  In fact, she is an espionage agent, a spy, and she is given orders to return to England as soon as it becomes obvious that Greece will soon by invaded by the Nazis.

Her replacement, Francis Escovil, has heard how Costa was able to help a German-Jewish woman slip two young children out of Germany and into Turkey.  Now Escovil wants Costa to give him the names of people in Germany who are working against the Nazis.  He doesn’t want to apply pressure on Costa, doesn’t think that will work, but he wants those names.  And Costa doesn’t want to give them to him, he just wants to go on helping Jews escape in his own way.

The characters in Spies of the Balkans are international. In addition to Costa (Greek) and his lover Roxanne (British), the reader is introduced to Celebi, the Turkish consul; Emilia Krebs, a Jewish woman helping others out of Germany; Salmi Pal, a Hungarian criminal living in Salonika; Ivan Lazareff, a friend in Bulgaria.  All these disparate people are working willingly or not to stop the Nazis.

Spies of the Balkans is a look back to the beginning of the Second World War in Greece. It was a poor country, very much unprepared to face the enormous armies of Germany and Italy.  But its people were fearless fighters, and the overwhelming odds against them did not stop them from trying to protect their homeland from invasion.

The novel traces the steps taken by the various individuals to get Jews and other resisters out of Germany and the occupied countries.  Money was needed, of course, to obtain forged papers–birth certificates, visas–and to be used for bribes, when necessary.  What is fascinating is those who helped people escape without asking for, or accepting, money.

When Emilia Krebs comes to Costa to ask for his help in getting two children out of Germany and into neutral Turkey, she says, “I can never thank you enough.  For helping me.”  “You don’t have to thank me,” he said.  “Who could say no?”  The goodness and naivete in his statement still resonate more than seventy years later.

Alan Furst has written a book that is difficult to put down. Each clandestine operation that Costa takes part in is different from those before it, and each one depends not only on him but others.   One misreading by Costa of someone he has asked for help and his life and those of the refugees would be forfeit.

Calling Spies of the Balkans a thriller is calling it by its true name. It’s a great read from first page to last, and that’s no hyperbole.  The last page will bring you to tears.

You can read more about Alan Furst at his web site.