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willemite

willemite

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Spies of the Balkans - Alan Furst Shshshshsh. Don’t tell anyone. It is 1939. In the strategic Greek port city of Salonika, rumblings of war can be heard as Nazi Germany gains allies by threat and force. People wonder only when the invasion will come. Costa Zinnis is the head of a special political branch of the police, charged with discretely managing the problems of the connected and keeping his finger on the pulse of the town. And there is plenty going on. Spies abound. A mysterious German accepts an envelope in a dark alley. Zinnis and his second pursue and the game is afoot.

Zinnis is the core here, and a solid one. The character is both tough and appealing in the classic spy noir style, but is a bit shorter in the damaged department that that formula suggests. He loves his mother, younger brother and dog, Melissa, who is a very welcome element. There are many fine supporting players here. A wealthy German Jewish woman needs help smuggling Jews out of Germany. Zinnis’ lady friend, a Brit, owns and runs a dance school, and hangs with the Salonika movers and shakers. But is she more than she appears? His rabbi in the police is a wonderful creation, an 80-something with solid connections and a clear view ahead. A suspicious British “travel writer” makes the rounds, as do an assortment of folks from the Greek and Hungarian criminal classes. Zinnis teams up with a foreign policeman to try to affect the course of political change. It is all very hush-hush, and all very much fun to read.

Of course no spy story would be complete without a femme fatale, and Spies of the Balkans does not disappoint, although I found that element one of the weaker ones. The attraction may have fit in with the love-at-first-sight expectations one has of such tales, but it seemed forced to me, at least on his end.

The payload here is a look at what life was like in late 1930s Greece while waiting for the other shoe to drop. Mussolini, threatening to invade, is eager to keep up with his mustached German buddy, groups within nations vie for political advantage, nations look to serve their own interests at the cost of their neighbors, preparations are made for resistance. The war years are like the Bible in that the tales are eternal. Furst has written eleven novels in his “Night Soldiers” series about (mostly) Eastern Europe during World War II. Spies of the Balkans is the latest.

While reading Spies of the Balkans one cannot help but visualize the events in glorious black and white, so well does Furst capture the right feel for the genre. In the same way one wonders what Rick and Louis might get up to after Lazlo and Ilsa take flight, Spies of the Balkans leaves one wanting more. This is a fast, fun and engaging read. The secret is out.