Escape from Greece

I'm a fan of Alan Furst. He writes great historical spy stories / thrillers very much in the style of Eric Ambler and Graham Greene. What I always find slightly surprising is that he's an American; although some elements of his style are very much inspired by the great American "gumshoe" writers such as Raymond Chandler - odd quips and pacing are very much a la Chandler; in his general sensibilities and style he is a chip off the Ambler block.

If you've never read any Furst before, Spies of the Balkans is a good place to start, as although it is part of a much longer sequence, you don't need to have read any of the rest of the sequence to enjoy this; it works as a perfect stand-alone novel.

Like many Fursts, Spies of the Balkans is set in a period in which a country (in this case Greece and the surrounding Balkan countries) stand on the brink of war. The Nazis have conquered much of Western Europe, America has yet to enter the war, and Hitler is pondering his next move following the Battle of Britain. Costas Zannis, a likeable detective, is called to a ship in port at Salonika, a town near the northern border of Greece. The cargo ship has an unusual cargo - what appears to be a German spy.

With Greece on the brink of war, Zannis has to decide what he's going to do next, and when he becomes involved in the eastern arm of an escape line for Jews from Berlin, the British secret service also becomes involved. Can Zannis help them extricate a British scientist trapped in Paris?

As always with Furst, the period detail is exact and lovingly portrayed. Furst also conjures up the sights and smells of Greece, and the confusion of a country about to be plunged into war. Several of the characters appear to be modelled on true-life counterparts - at least one character reminded me of the men who fought with Patrick Leigh Fermor as described in Ill met by moonlight. And all of this combined makes the novel feel very realistic.

The love interest is a little clumsy, and did feel to me as though it was added more for effect than to propel the story forward; but the novel generally works well. The most touching moments of the novel are nothing to do with the various women in Zannis' life, but rather with his dog, Melissa "Honeybee"; and his relationship with his staff - which move from being formal to placing a great deal of trust in them. Furst is excellent at describing the difficulties of a country about to be invaded. Where do you place your trust? And how can you judge loyalties in a rapidly changing situation?

Well paced with the odd touch of black humour, some great period detail, and a taut tense narrative. Spies of the Balkans is a great place to start if you've never read any Furst; and if you have, read this and enjoy.


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