Spies of the Balkans: A book review

Heinkel He 111 during the Battle of Britain. This file comes from Wikipedia Commons.
Heinkel He 111 during the Battle of Britain. This file comes from Wikipedia Commons.

We live in a time obsessed with spying. Wikileaks and Snowden have shown that non-state actors are now important actors in espionage, while also raising fundamental questions about the right to privacy. Now the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) are talking about building their own undersea cable, in order to evade U.S. eavesdropping on their transmissions. This would enable South America to communicate directly with Europe without passing information through the U.S. We now know that the U.S. recorded even German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone conversations. Other nations are outraged, but they might do the same if they had the capability. Spying seems to flourish more now than at any time since the end of the Cold War. In this context, the espionage genre is not fading away.

While spying proliferates now, the stakes are not as high as during World War Two, a period that novelist Alan Furst has returned to in a series of novels set in different European nations. One of his recent novels, Spies of the Balkans, is set in Salonika, Greece shortly before the German invasion. The protagonist is a police detective in a unit dedicated to solving political cases, such as when the mayor’s girlfriend arranges to have him shot. Furst’s lead characters tend to be less ambiguous than in some other spy novels (le Carre), and Constantine “Costa” is no exception. At first the novel seems to meander, but this novel is tightly plotted, and few details are left to chance. Costa is asked to help well-to-do Jews to leave Germany. When he agrees, he starts down a path that leads him from one European nation -and disaster- to the next.

As in all Furst novels, the author shows an impressive mastery of historical detail, which leads people to wonder “how did he know that?” He uses this detail to evoke a mood, and the verisimilitude contributes to the atmosphere of tension in the work. The reader has a sense of claustrophobia, whether he is describing Jewish travelers fleeing Europe by train, or the atmosphere in Greece before the German invasion. The novel is not perfect. Costa is a resourceful but not complex character, and his main love interest seems unconvincing. Most characters, however, are likeable and engaging, perhaps none more so than the elderly man who serves as Costa’s mentor. At the core this work is a thriller, and the suspense is masterfully done. At a time when war seems possible in Ukraine, and migrants risk their lives to cross the Sonoran desert into the United States, the themes in the work remain germane. Highly recommended.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

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