WWII-era Spy novel spiced with Righteous Gentiles, Balkan politics

Spies of the Balkans

By Elaine K. Alexander, Special to the Light

Alan Furst’s dream of a feature-length, movie adaptation of one of his novels has yet to be fulfilled. But his espionage novels set in Europe during World War II, are appreciated by critics and have shown up on New York Times bestseller lists. His most recent – and 11th -book “Spies of the Balkans” (268 pp., Random House, $26) takes place over a few months in the Greek port city, Salonika (sah-LON-i-cah), in 1940-41 when Greece is poised to fight and fold during the inevitable Nazi invasion. There, Constantine “Costa” Zannis, an honorable, police official heads up a tiny department that handles politically sensitive cases, owns a sweet dog with paranormal skills, meets the love of his life-a “goddess” married to a dangerous shipping magnate-survives by the skin of his teeth while serving active duty in a reserve army unit and helps manage an underground railway, from Berlin to Turkey, for German Jews. 

During a recent interview, Furst startled host Charlie Rose when the author admitted to working on the book entirely in his writer’s studio in Sag Harbor, N.Y. having spent nine months buried in historical literature, but a total of only two days visiting Salonika. Nevertheless, somehow, Furst’s novel is redolent with atmosphere and details-of-place-“That day the taverna had a freshly caught octopus. A tentacle was hung from a hook in the kitchen ceiling [and customers showed the cook how big a piece they wanted carved off for lunch].”

Beth Shalom Cemetery ad

“Spies of the Balkans” is a fresh and slightly exotic take on WW II because it is pictured against the fierce, geo-politics of the Balkans. (Balkans is Turkish for “mountains.”) Although the story never breaks for lengthy, instructive passages; the history of the region is sketched in the characters’ allusions to Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Albania, Greece, Turkey. These countries that form a “smelting pot” of borders and ethnicities-for instance, Serbs and Croats, Greeks and Turks-with long-standing rivalries and folk memories of invasion, resistance, loss and displacement. In 1940, Salonika had only broken free from the Ottoman Empire a generation earlier, in 1912, eighty years behind Athens and western Greece. 

Furst’s novel is terse and cerebral, but it does includes colorful characters, a speedy getaway, tense inspections of false documents… A fugitive caught in a lie about going to a funeral thinks quickly and saves the day with still another lie: he is involved in an illicit love affair. There is some real violence; at close range, a drunken SS officer is shot in the face. Although the author does not dwell on the bloody aftermath.

Overall, “Spies of the Balkans” is a spy novel with an ethical heart: because out of pure compassion, people take big risks, battle with real evil, and in small ways, rise to greatness.

Elaine K. Alexander is a freelance writer who lives in Creve Coeur. She is working on a memoir about being the child of Holocaust survivors.