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by Alan Furst
Phoenix, January 2011
304 pages
7.99 GBP
ISBN: 0753827263

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Alan Furst's spy novels are like rich, medieval tapestries. You think you have a breath-taking over-view of them then you realise you can't take your eyes off a scene that's been worked in intricate detail.

The books, too, make it abundantly apparent just how vast the theatre of war was during the second world war. The UK and the USA are very much in the background in Furst's books, as he roams central and eastern Europe, portraying the realities of war on ordinary people.

The focus of SPIES OF THE BALKANS is the politically unstable region across Greece, Turkey and Macedonia. Costa Zannis is the chief of detectives in Salonika, a city firmly in the sights of the Germans. Zannis helps defeat the Italians in Macedonia, then becomes embroiled in a plot to smuggle Jews out of Germany to Istanbul. But a risky love affair threatens to jeopardise everything.

Furst's strengths are without a doubt that minute attention to detail and the ability to pull the reader into the lives of the ordinary people whose day-to-day existence is thrown into chaos by the uncertainty and randomness of war. There's a real tension throughout SPIES OF THE BALKANS, as the war feels like rumbling thunder in the background, fading and approaching at different points.

The weak link in the book is Zannis's love life, as he conducts a risky affair with the wife of a wealthy businessman. But aside from that, Furst weaves in some derring-do adventure and the presence of a charismatic British freedom fighter alongside the grit and bleakness of living and fighting in a war zone.

As in other Furst books, the ending appears abrupt. But SPIES OF THE BALKANS is just one in a series which eschews easy and happy endings. We all know that war doesn't work that way. And it sets up the opportunity for another book in this sequence to focus on another section of beleaguered Europe.

Sharon Wheeler is a UK-based journalist, writer and lecturer.

Reviewed by Sharon Wheeler, May 2011

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