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Review: In 'Spies of the Balkans,' Alan Furst mixes romance, espionage

I read my first Alan Furst novel nine years ago and urged readers to do themselves a favor and seek out everything this talented writer had in print. Now, having read Furst's 11th and latest novel, Spies of the Balkans, I find that my advice holds. About all that has changed since 2001 is that Furst was relatively unknown then, and today he is widely recognized as one of the finest spy novelists active.

Furst has made a specialty of portraying conflicting intelligence agencies — usually the Nazis vs. the communists, the British or the French Resistance — in the years before and during World War II. Like many of today's best spy novelists, such as Robert Littell, Daniel Silva and David Ignatius, Furst began as a journalist, and his books combine exhaustive research with exceptional narrative skill.

Spies of the Balkans is about a Greek police officer who joins the anti-Nazi underground even as Hitler's army is poised to invade his country. Constantine Zannis is an honest but pragmatic fellow who handles sensitive political assignments in the Greek city of Salonika.

The plot is built around three missions that the anti-Nazi policeman undertakes. First, he helps a wealthy Jewish woman in Berlin smuggle her friends to safety. In another mission, he journeys to German-occupied Paris, where he works with the French Resistance to help an English scientist escape. Finally, using his police contacts and credentials, Zannis goes to Belgrade to assist in an anti-Nazi coup d'etat. All these adventures are exciting and entirely persuasive.

The publicity that arrived with the novel asserted that it has more romance than Furst's previous books, and, as best I can recall, that's true. Zannis is 40, handsome and single, and although busy opposing the Nazis, he manages to meet no fewer than five attractive women in the few months of the story. If you haven't read Furst, this is a perfectly good place to start, but then I suggest you go back to the earlier ones and work your way forward. You won't regret it.

Spies of the Balkans

By Alan Furst

Random House, 268 pages, $26

Review: In 'Spies of the Balkans,' Alan Furst mixes romance, espionage 07/17/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 13, 2010 4:55pm]
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