Marvelously terse writing enlivens Spies Of The Balkans, which would be a garden-variety tale of World War II without it. Fortunately, author Alan Furst has a way of paring his sentences down to models of tough-guy simplicity, sentences that stand shivering in the doorway of a grand hotel on a cold evening, smoking a cigarette and cursing this damnable war.
Spies works best when it acts as a travelogue of ways to escape Nazi-infested Europe, shortly before the German Army swept across the few countries it hadn’t gobbled up in the early days of the war. The book is set in Greece in the winter of 1940 and 1941, and its main character, Costa Zannis, is a gritty detective who becomes the tail end of an operation to ship Jews out of Central Europe and into Turkey, where they’ll be safe from extermination. Naturally, his skill soon attracts other operators’ interest, and soon, he’s improvising his way out of dangerous situations all across the continent, and romancing the wife of his chief financier.
Granted, this all sounds like a million other spy novels, especially a million other spy novels set during World War II, but Furst makes all of it seem just new enough to be enjoyable. He doesn’t bother with a lot of connective tissue between the four main vignettes that make up the book, choosing instead to focus on how Zannis worms his way out of one improbable situation after another. Furst’s tightly packed little sentences make the action seem more plausible than it probably should, and he’s found a worthy lead in Zannis, a man whose desire to do the right thing takes him into unorthodox corners.
The best thing about Spies is Furst’s descriptions of the way war-torn Europe must have looked and felt. His depiction of Balkan nations like Yugoslavia and Greece as they turn back the Italians, then wait through a long, cold winter for the Nazis’ arrival, is appropriately paranoid, and his excursions to Nazi-occupied Paris and the hidden corners of Hungary are similarly executed with panache. The French detour, in particular, is fantastic, though it leaves the rest of the book just a bit wanting, as Furst takes Zannis’ impossible mission in the country as an excuse to describe infiltrating a club full of Nazis, or how it felt to fly in a rickety plane over Europe, just waiting for the Luftwaffe to come.
Spies isn’t as perfect as some of Furst’s other tales of World War II espionage—in particular, the romantic subplots feel as if they’re there out of obligation—but it’s wonderfully paced all the same. In a literary world with fewer and fewer tough guys, Furst offers a classic one, amid rough-and-tumble sentences perfectly suited to him.