1940-Costa Zannis is a senior police official in Salonika. He deals with special political cases
Was the Belgian consul being blackmailed by a prostitute? Call Zannis.
Had the son of an Athenian politician taken a diamond ring from a jeweller and refused to pay for it? Call Zannis.
With Mussolini’s troops in Albania about to invade and German agents all around, Zannis still manages to set up an escape route for Jews fleeing from the Nazis. He also embarks on a passionate but dangerous love affair with the beautiful Demetria. Zannis a consummate wheeler dealer arranges safe passage for his both his family and that of his valued work colleague, Gabi Saltiel, a Sephardic Jew from the large community in Salonika. In between all this Zannis mixes with British spies, Turkish officials, Yugoslav policemen, and French resistance making dangerous trips to Paris and Belgrade. I was amazed that Furst squeezes so much action, characterisation, back stories, and easily digestible history into a mere 279 pages. We are even taken to Berlin as we follow the Gruens in a long journey across Europe as they try to escape from the Nazis. He reminds us that Salonika was one of those cosmopolitan cities in the Ottoman Empire that along with Smyrna, and Beirut have suffered the devastating results of war and a total change in character.
But Zannis and Demetria even in a city about to be occupied, and suffer a catastrophe, were able to dine like the last meal of a condemned man.
They ate spiced whipped feta, they ate calamari stuffed with cheese, they ate grilled octopus and grilled aubergine and mussels with rice pilaf and creamy thick yogurt with honey.
It all adds to the atmosphere of a very fine spy thriller.
The narrrative of Spies of the Balkans with all its tension does have a nice twist at the very end that can almost, but not quite, make you forget the terrible fate that awaited Salonika.
‘ More luck- especially for your Salonika Jews. Because our Jews, in Zagreb, are right at the top of the Ustashi list. They’d like to get rid of the Serbs, and the Croat politicians who oppose them, but they really have it in for the Jews. If the Utashi ever took control of the city, well…………..’
Spies of the Balkans was my Pick of the Month for December.
Next week 9 January BBC are televising another Alan Furst wartime novel Spies of Warsaw.