Except for John le Carré, there is really no worthy competitor for the master of the historical spy novel, Alan Furst. Like his other espionage novels, Spies of the Balkans is rich with historical detail; this time, Furst’s setting is the port city of Salonika, Macedonia, at the time Greece was at war with Mussolini.
Costa Zannis, a senior police official, is our protagonist, and he doesn’t disappoint. Although not the stereotypical hero, he is charismatic, smart and humorous when the time is ripe. Despite a less than perfect appearance, Zannis has a romantic streak, and occasionally falls into passionate trysts with Demetria, an incredibly beautiful woman he cannot have. Less interesting to him is Roxanne, who turns out to be a double agent.
The one girl he can always count on is Melissa, his faithful, soulful dog. Even spies need nurturing, especially when Zannis is called up for a brief period of active duty to protect his people from the Germans. Zannis risks his life many times to help rescue a sliver of Germany’s Jewish population, and in the course of the novel, at least 40 individuals who otherwise would have been tortured and killed are saved.
Zannis’ police role makes him instantly recognizable to most people, whether friend or foe, but he keeps his ego in check. Mostly, his life is lonely, though it is always filled with danger and foreboding. Besides the tragedies of war, he deals with everyday police matters, and he frequently travels to achieve small miracles for people at the expense of his personal life. He is one of the more likeable spy characters created by the talented Furst, and Spies of the Balkans is another fast-moving, nuanced novel that will keep you up at night.