The Furst formula: Mix intrigue with war SON hit the road in search of each other
The Robert Doisneau photo on the book jacket tells the story: a well-dressed couple, face to face, looking in opposite directions down an empty, shadowy city street.
Is he making a pass or are they passing information? In 11 novels, Alan Furst has created a world filled with both. The place is Europe from the 1930s until the war's end.
Mr. Furst knows his history -- social, diplomatic and military. He knows the political complexities of the big picture and the moral complexities for individuals caught up in those nightmarish times.
His stories of international intrigue are much the same as those Eric Ambler told during those years. The villains are the same: German and Italian fascists, the cruel, the greedy and the opportunists.
His central figures, called at the time people of good will, were ordinary individuals caught in extraordinary circumstances and responding to them with unexpected loyalty or decency and strength.
Writing so many years later than Mr. Ambler, Mr. Furst has his differences. Most of these stories are views from the margins. His central characters are from the Netherlands, Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary and Russia.
In "Spies of the Balkans," Costa Zannis, a senior police official from Salonika, is approached in late 1940 by a wealthy German woman to help smuggle Jews to neutral Turkey.
He agrees to set up an underground railroad from Hungary to Salonika and then to the Turkish border.
Zannis, however, is called to resist an Italian invasion through the mountains.
When he returns to Salonika, he is warmly welcomed by his bosses, his family, his brilliant dog Melissa (I kid you not) and even more warmly by his English lover, Roxanne Brown.
Using contacts in the demimonde and the criminal world, financial support from the German woman and a Greek shipping magnate, and with the secret support of his bosses, Zannis is able to establish this road to freedom.
In one chapter, a tour de force, we experience the long, dangerous but successful journey of one couple.
The British, who have promised to help Greece defend itself against an expected German invasion, have learned of Zannis' success. They essentially force him to use his connections to rescue a vitally necessary scientist who is in hiding in France.
In the rest of the novel, things do not go as planned for Zannis and the political situation in Greece becomes even more complicated and dangerous for his official position.
If that is not enough, his private life also takes a dangerous turn. After Roxanne returns to England, Zannis becomes hopelessly attracted to a Greek goddess married to the powerful and violent shipping magnate who financed his operations.
And so the dangers and the tensions build to some rather surprising personal and political results.
Mr. Furst has fine-tuned the slow turning of the screw in this novel and, indeed, in all of them. This is a writer who knows how to create and sustain suspense.
And it is impossible not to like his quirky and interesting characters, especially the minor figures who play such important parts in the larger historical struggle. The author makes it clear that this was a people's war to win.
The comparison to "Casablanca" is apt. The atmosphere and the moral terrain are similar. But life is definitely a messier and more complicated business in the Balkans. That's bad for its people, but it's great for writers such as Mr. Furst.
First Published July 18, 2010 12:00 am