Spies Of The Balkans by Alan Furst

9780753827260 Spies Of The Balkans is what my father would have called a potboiler. Costa Zanni is not quite a policeman and not really a spy, but he gets all the awkward cases to handle in the northern Greek port of Salonika, the ones that require a bit of diplomatic nous and a light touch. But things are about to get much more complicated: it is 1940 and Mussolini’s Italy invades Greece. And meanwhile, beyond the Balkans, in central Europe Hitler is starting to put the Final Solution into practice. It’s an exciting set-up and Alan Furst is very good on the dreary chill of life under occupation. Aware that the Holocaust is coming, German Jews begin to use Salonika as a jumping-off point to Turkey as they escape the Fuhrer’s increasingly deadly interest. Ignore the novel’s title, which sounds like something Max Hastings might come up with on an off day; and pass over the fact that Costa has more sex than Hugh Hefner in his prime and goes on more secret missions than 007 with a ministerial quota to fulfil. Furst is not the first author to make his main character catnip to the ladies, and the missions are taut affairs. And Costa cannot be the only chap to think he is sleeping with an expat ballet school owner, only to find that she is a British secret service agent. And we have all, surely, started an affair with the wife of a rich, ruthless magnate who is bankrolling the escape route for Jews we have set up between Nazi Germany and the (relatively) free world without a thought for the consequences. For a perceptive fellow he can be quite dim. But this is just mild carping: Furst is writing a thriller, his use of free indirect speech is brilliant and the pages turn. The ending is – given the parlous state of the times – relatively happy, as if Furst cannot bear too much tragedy. I must thank Brian Weatherley, bibliophile and sage of Ashford, for introducing me to Costa. Like exposure to James Bond, I think it will need careful managing. But the scene is expertly set for a sequel. And I want to know more.

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