Spies of the Balkans: All the intrigue the cover advertises

Sara Pisak, Assistant Opinion Editor

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Spies of the Balkans is the eleventh novel by Alan Furst however, the novel marks my first foray into Alan Furst’s writing. Why did I select this Furst novel? I wanted to select a book from the bookstore shelf without background information or a synopsis posted on the back cover. Honestly, I selected this book because of its cover.

Spies of the Balkans is the perfect text to select based on its cover. First, the word “spies” is boldly printed on the front cover. Instantly, this should be a clue that intrigue and mystery will follow. Second, adorned on the front cover is a black and white photograph of a 1940s couple clutching a briefcase. The woman’s face obscures the man’s face, rendering him unidentifiable.

The cover art is a precursor to the plot as well as the main characters enclosed within the book’s pages. As soon as a reader opens the novel, they know immediately that the novel is exactly what the cover illustrates. As a result, I enjoyed being plunged into the shady, uncover world of espionage.

After opening the pages, the reader becomes engaged in the story of Costa Zannis, a senior police official. Set during the 1940s, Zannis, a citizen of Greece, lives in the port city known as Salonika. Zannis quickly finds himself playing a dangerous game of political espionage. As Adolf Hitler organizes an invasion of the Balkans, Zannis plans an escape route for fugitives captured by the Nazis. Pursued by the Gestapo, Zannis must work quickly to free Balkan detectives from the Nazi’s grasp.

As time before the invasion runs out, Zannis finds himself falling in love with three different women who come into his life. Does Zannis and his captive Balkan detectives make it out alive?

What makes Spies of the Balkans a worthwhile read in the throngs of all the available thriller and mystery novels? Furst’s writing is top notch but what makes this novel standout is his ability to use actual events in a productive and a believable way which paints a vivid setting.

Typing historical fiction into a Google search yields the following definition: “Historical fiction is defined as movies and novels in which a story is made up but is set in the past and sometimes borrows true characteristics of the time period in which it is set.” The definition of historical fiction states, events or characters are “borrowed.”

The wonderful element of Furst’s Spies of the Balkans is his work, notably his characters and setting, does not in the least feel borrowed. In short, Furst immerses the reader in a time instead of simply borrowing characters and adding them to his contemporary work. Although not a true historical account of the Balkan police force during the 1940s, Furst’s work engages a reader so greatly in the time period that as a reader closes the final pages, it is difficult for the reader not to believe the text is historically accurate. A reader will definitely have a problematic time separating fact from fiction, which is exactly what one hopes for in a historical spy novel.

Furst is able to achieve the feat of readable historical accuracy by setting the scene. The way characters such as Zannis dress, walk, talk and interact leaves the reader entirely absorbed in a different way of life. Further, Spies of the Balkans is vividly described. The setting of the city rears to life, becoming a character in its own right. The setting flows as Zannis travels through the Balkans to assist with the escape of captured Balkan detectives. W

With each twist and turn, as Zannis runs through the dark alleys of Salonika, the setting comes to life; twisting and turning in its own right. The streets wither and die as the countdown to the final attack quickly approaches. Furst’s description of The Balkans during World War II leaves the reader in a state of shock when he or she peers over the edge of their book, only to realize the modern world surrounds them.

As the setting in the Spies of the Balkans breathes life, it creates the affect that as Zannis and his girlfriend try to escape, Zannis’ account could be more historically accurate than fiction. It is Furst’s idea of immersion instead of borrowing that leaves more historical details for the reader to grasp than fictionalized story elements. Zannis’ escape reads as a plight of all those who fled the Nazi regime and not just those who fled like Zannis because of his political treason. The idea of Zannis being “the everyman” by the conclusion of the text further drives home Furst’s historical immersion instead of historical borrowing. I look forward to reading additional Furst’s novels and being transported into completely thrilling times and places.

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