Publisher: Random House, www.atrandom.com
Location: New York
Cover: Robin Schiff, Robert Doisneau
reviewed by: Lynard Barnes 9/15/2010
Summary: The eve of Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Balkans and the life of senior police office Constantine “Costa” Zannis.
Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of reading a novel placed in an historical context is anticipating what the story and the characters do at some portentous historical moment. In Alan Furst’s SPIES OF THE BALKANS, we have the added enjoyment of experiencing ordinary people doing ordinary things even at extraordinary moments.
SPIES OF THE BALKANS plops us down into the life of Costatine “Costa” Zannis, “a senior police official” in the city of Solonika. There is nothing extraordinary about Zannis. But at the time we enter his life, the Greco-Italian War has just started. On the horizon is the Balkans Campaign of World War II, which starts in April 1941 and the eventual occupation of Salonika by Nazi Germany.
Before the fall, before the plaid, not uncommon police official Zannis is pushed by the events of history to abandon his niche in Solonika, he is buffeted by, at the time, some not so uncommon events to perform acts of human decency. This is the extraordinary and thoroughly enticing element of SPIES OF THE BALKANS. That the mundane currents of life propel people into exceptional acts is the real story of this novel. Costa Zannis is ordinary in practically every sense of the word. True, his “police official” designation is a bit outside the norm. But the totality is ordinariness. This in spite of the web of British and German spies transiting the little sphere of his influence. Then again, even the spies are not extraordinary in the sense of James Bonds or Mata Hari. British spies collecting information, German spies taking photographs-it all seems so pedestrian.
There is plenty of high octane adventure in this novel. Zannis meets a German woman, Emilia Krebs, who has taken it upon herself to help Jews and others prosecuted by the Nazis. Krebs is one of the traffic managers on the routes out of Germany allowing the prosecuted to escape. The “police official” in Zannis compels him to help. Or does it? Is there something more? The author has drawn Costa Zannis so well that the character’s decision to hope on a train, travel to Paris and help a German couple escape to Budapest and then Belgrade seems merely like the folding of a piece of paper in upon itself. And all the attendant steps he takes to shield others from the consequences of his action in the event he is caught or the German come-as they eventually do-are a signature of what we as readers expect.
The reader comes to feel that everything about the lives of the characters in SPIES OF THE BALKANS is understated. And why shouldn’t it be. With millions dying on battlefields and in concentration camps, how extraordinary can one man’s life be except its simplicity. Furst melds history and the commonplace with an incredible insight into what is really important in life. Read SPIES OF THE BALKANS. You will enjoy both the history and the life lesson.