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Spies of the Balkans Publisher: Random House Hardcover – 2009

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Product Details

  • Hardcover
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B004V4AEYI
  • Shipping Weight: 680 g
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) HASH(0xa80d063c) out of 5 stars 252 reviews
162 of 177 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa2ecdb10) out of 5 stars Greece before the Alan Furst April 22 2010
By Jill Meyer - Published on
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product
Salonika, Greece (now Thessalonika), is Greece's second largest city, after Athens. However, it is located in the northeastern part of Greece, much closer to the Balkan nations than to Athens. And it is here where Alan Furst, author of so many excellent WW2 novels, has based his new "spy thriller".

The summer and fall and winter of 1940 was the end of the "Phoney War" in Europe. Hitler had invaded west and had taken France and the Low Countries, and were threatening the Balkan States, some of whom were already "allied" with Germany. Greece had just been invaded by Mussolini's Italy, jealous of the success of Hitler's Germany and all the land they had conquered. The Greeks were able to hold off Italian advances, but everyone was waiting for Hitler to come to the aid of his Axis-partner, and finish off Yugoslavia and then Greece. (Understanding the politics of the Balkans is way above my pay-grade, but I can sort of appreciate the machinations of all involved).

Costa Zannis is a "special" police officer in Salonika, assigned to the city's "special" cases - those involving high-ranking officials and foreign dignitaries. "Special cases" which needed tact and discretion to handle. He has a small squad at his disposal, and extra funds from the government to help him along with his job. Furst has Zannis handle many cases, from aiding a refugee underground devoted to getting Jews from Germany to safety in Turkey and Egypt, to helping sneak a shot-down British scientist trapped in Occupied France escape back to England by taking him down the Balkans to Greece. Zannis is not an ambiguous hero. He does what he does from an honest belief in helping those who need it. He is quite honestly a good man.

Furst writes quite a nuanced book here. The plot is sometimes a little pot-boiler, but only a little. It's all in all a great read, particularly for those of us WW2 "junkies".
144 of 159 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa2ee118c) out of 5 stars Furst but not the best May 3 2010
By Jeffrey Phillips - Published on
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product
I enjoy a good historical novel, especially one set in such turbulent times as the 1930s. I also enjoy detective or spy novels, so any book that combines an interesting historical perspective with a detective or spy plot is high on my list.

That places Alan Furst near the top of my favorite authors. He, along with Philip Kerr, are the kings of pre-World War II detective/spy novels. While Kerr bases his work around Bernie Gunther, a cynical Berlin detective in Weimar and pre-Nazi Berlin, Furst places his novels in locations around Europe, usually on the fringes of Europe where circumstances and the nascent police states of Italy, Germany and Spain were just coming into being. Furst's main character, such as it is, is the environment, the impending doom of war and the restriction of rights across Europe, and the small actions by individuals and groups to resist.

Furst has examined a number of different locations and stories related to pre-war Europe, from the Polish officer escaping the German Front, to spies in Paris and Serbia. In his most recent book, Spies of the Balkans, he considers the impact of the coming war to Greece.

As usual in many Furst novels, there is a spy or detective in the mold of Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, an outwardly cynical professional with a real sense of right and wrong. In this novel he is a detective in Salonika who is called up as the Italians attack Albania and invade Greece. The Greeks fight hard and push the Italians back, but everyone recognizes that Hitler won't stand for that. The writing is on the wall that eventually Germany will come and clean up the mess Italy left behind.

Meanwhile the detective has been approached by wealthy Jews in Germany to establish a ratline to extract Jews out of Germany through Romania, Hungary and Serbia to Salonika, and then onward to Turkey. A number of people are extracted before the Germans invade.

In the final sequence the detective is approached to extract a downed English flier in Paris and get him out of France and into Turkey. While he doesn't have a lot of experience in spycraft, he manages to extract the flier using the broad reach of Greek diaspora in Paris.

The book starts slowly as Furst lays the groundwork for Hitler's eventual attack into the Balkans and Greece. Most of the novel is very much vintage Furst, but some of the escape from Paris stretches credulity a bit. This is a good book - I'd like to give it four stars, and would for many other authors, but it's not as good as some of Furst's other books, which is the standard to evaluate against.
38 of 41 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa2edede0) out of 5 stars Echoes of Thermopylae circa 1940 April 24 2010
By Blue in Washington - Published on
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product
"Spies of the Balkans" introduces a new protagonist in Constantine Zannis, an incorruptible "senior police official" in Salonika, capital of Greek Macedonia. As drawn by the always inventive author Alan Furst, Zannis is a paragon of principle and ingenuity with considerable authority and reputation in his city and country. He watches warily, with the rest of the Greek population, as Hitler's war machine works its way south into the Balkans and inevitably threatens his homeland. In the interim period, Salonika becomes a center for the espionage networks--Nazi. British and neutral--that must be controlled and used as much as possible to the benefit of the small Greek nation. Zannis goes from spy catcher to military officer (as the Italians make a clumsy attempt to invade Greece) to manager of a critical terminus for an escape network for German Jewish refugees. His writ jumps to direct espionage when he reluctantly joins forces with British intelligence to rescue a scientist critical to the Allied war effort who is hiding in Paris. Zannis is later sent into Yugoslavia to assist in a coup d'etat that could head off a Nazi takeover of the country and further threaten Greece.

Like every Alan Furst novel, "Spies of the Balkans" has great period interest, is entertaining from the first page and generally respects the intelligence of the reader. This book, for me, was effective in evoking the creeping menace of the war and the general feeling of helplessness that the Greeks and other Balkan peoples must have felt in the face of that threat. Also a plus here was what seemed to be a shift in the stature of the story's protagonist. In most of Furst's other books (if memory serves), the principals are men slightly outside the centers of power--often lone wolves. Always acting out of some personal code of honor, but generally without direct authority to effect the course of events. In "Spies of the Balkans", Constantine Zannis is a figure of real authority and influence and operates directly to make things happen or prevent them from happening. Zannis is also given a full-blown personal life in this story and has a range of feelings and perceptions that most previous Furst heroes did not enjoy. All of this is to the good, I think, enriching and validating his actions.

I'm not sure yet if I have any real criticisms of this book. If I did, I suppose it would center on Furst's endowment of Zannis with almost superhuman qualities at times. Zannis is so enterprising and heroic that there a couple of times in the story he comes close to being non-credible. But Furst's great narratives of Zannis' exploits, or at least the terrific narratives of the contexts that he operates in, overcome the reader's gut reaction of cynicism.

In any event, "Spies of the Balkans" is an excellent read. Probably more original and more complete than some of Furst's more recent novels. I'm a long-time fan of the writer and will continue to be. Recommended.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa2edeeb8) out of 5 stars An open letter to Alan Furst, his publisher and you July 9 2010
By Bill Donovan - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Full Disclosure: I've read all of Furst's books, as soon as they were published, most several times. I admire the bejesus out of his writing and actually savor many of his sentences, words even, they're that good.

The problem is that Furst writes sketches, not fully realized novels. Not since Red Star and Night Soldiers has he actually dug in and developed the themes, characters and plot lines he creates with such originality and feeling. It's maddening. As if you knew one of the world's best chefs but got nothing but appetizers from him. Or only got to see movie previews, never the feature.

Spies of the Balkans is true to form. So many fascinating threads: the Jewish escape operation from Berlin and the woman who runs it; the British espionage operation in Greece and the people who run that; the fixer in Paris; the protagonist's assistants and family--all fascinating and only touched upon.

Just to be clear, Furst isn't perfect. The main character is always the same guy with a different accent. The Germans are always straight from central casting. The same bistro in Paris with the bullet hole in the mirror is always dragged in. It doesn't matter. Just write one all the way, Alan. You know what I'm talking about. You've done it before. A book like that would be worth $150 to me. And I'm not the only one. Discuss it with your publisher. Thank you.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa2edee70) out of 5 stars expected more ... July 4 2010
By staunen - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Furst's greatest strength in previous books, believable and compelling character development, was decidedly less evident in Spies of the Balkans. Though I liked Costa, his interactions in the book too often seemed incomplete or shallow. His relationship with Demetria, for example, was especially contrived. She came off more ornamental to the plot than integral to it (which was unusual after such complex female characters in Furst's other books) and would have been better replaced as a love interest by Roxanne or even Emilia Krebs. In fact, Costa's dealings with Pavlik, his uncle in Paris, and his patron in Salonika, all of which showed promise, were lacking in depth (each seeming more to be merely mentioned than fully explored - I suppose it says something when his most convincing relationship in the story is with his dog, Melissa). Is it possible that an increase in popularity fed pressure on Furst to publish before the book was ready? If so, I'd love to see him return to form and follow Costa through the end of the war (and after). Anyway, the book wasn't horrible, there was enough to keep me reading to the end, but based on his previous efforts, I anticipated so much more that this left me feeling somewhat let down.

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