So many crime novels have been written about World War II, that I thought every possible aspect and angle had been covered. But in 2001, I finally got around to reading Alan Furst’s 1995 novel, The Polish Officer, and followed it closely with Night Soldiers (1998). It was then I realized how little I knew about the war in Eastern Europe.
Furst’s masterful new book, Spies of the Balkans (Random House), advances my education still further--especially on the subject of how Greece, despite having few allies and a multitude of enemies both at home and abroad, managed in 1940 to avoid the sad fate of so many other Balkan countries.
In the northern port city of Salonika, Costa Zannis, a veteran police official and espionage agent, finds himself up to his neck in troubles as he tries to help Jews fleeing Nazi occupation. He also has to deal with a supposedly neutral but actually pro-German Greek government.
When Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini decides to launch an invasion of Greece, which he hopes will show German dictator Adolf Hitler that he isn’t going to play second fiddle to anyone (the Führer is outraged!), Zannis is recruited into the fight against Italy. As Mussolini’s invasion fizzles, Zannis moves on to other Balkan countries, making contacts with guerrilla leaders that will help him achieve his twin goals: to save Jewish emigrants as well as his own family by sneaking them into officially neutral Turkey.
Zannis’ life is made bearable (at least at first) by a splendidly sexy English woman named Roxeanne Brown. The couple make plans to go to the movies (a Turkish Western called Clyde Conquers Wyoming is one night’s choice), but instead go home to make love. “I prefer depravity,” says Roxeanne, who has a “prim English voice” and wears white cotton panties (just in case you were curious).
Spies of the Balkans is already on my short list for Best Books of 2010.
READ MORE: “Alan Furst’s Spies of the Balkans,” by Michael Carlson (Irresistible Targets).