Malcolm has been a fan of Alan Furst these twenty-odd years. He knows that because he has a copy of Night Soldiers from 1988, and then each of the next ten in the series. All in hard-back, acquired as soon as published.
The only mystery is why Spies of the Balkans took this long to reach the top of Malcolm’s book-pile. Then it was a non-stop, end-to-end, cut to the chase.
There are numerous other reviews available on the net. Look there for guidance: Furst enthusiasts will have been there ahead of you, in droves. For Furst is one of the few to stand comparison with the very best of the genre: Ambler, le Carre, Deighton …
Meanwhile, note that the UK dust-cover (above left), for once is neater, more suitable than the US version, which sports a lurid strap with the author’s name.
[Let’s stop Malcolm’s maunderings there, else he’ll be shuffling all the way back to Riddle of the Sands.]
Yet, he has one further, extended observation.
Is Malcolm mistaken, or has Furst, with this latest, become more positive, more factional, more up-beat, less noir?
For with the book’s protagonist, Constantine Zannis, Salonika’s political policeman and general “fixer”, we have a largely-admirable character (and one, surely, to be explored at greater length in a further volume: Furst has a cyclical habit and serial characterisations). Zannis here lacks the shades of grey (and noir) Furst achieves with more complex characters in his more convoluted books.
Then again, the story is (again by Furst’s standards) remarkably straight-forward. The essential premiss is extracting Jewish refugees, across continental Europe, at a price, out of Nazi Germany, while the Italians take a bashing from the Greeks and we await 6 April 1941 and the Wehrmacht.
In no time at all, and with minimal effort, Zannis has constructed a fully-operative escape route, via Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Sofia, Sarajevo … The story then involves three missions along this route, one heading all the way back to bring a British scientist out of hiding in Paris. This is explained to Zannis by two British agents, in a single page:
‘Once upon a time, ‘ Jones said — glass in hand, he settled back against the chair and crossed his legs — ‘there was a little man called Henry Byer. You wouldn’t know the name, but if you’d been one of the chaps hanging about in the science labs of Cambridge in the nineteen-twenties, you most certainly would. A physicist, Harry, as he’s called, and brilliant. Studied sound waves and radio beams, very theoretical back then, nobody had the faintest idea such things could be used in war, nobody had heard of radio navigation. It helps bombers flying at night … Now the germans have their own radio beams but, using the methods that Harry Byer discovered, we can alter them. And the Luftwaffe may know we’re doing it, but they don’t know how Harry Byers knows how.’
Jones stopped for a drink, then went on. ‘Anyway life went well for Harry: a lectureship at Cambridge, where he worked in the physics lab, he married his sweetheart, a pretty girl —’
‘Smashing girl,’ Wilkins said. ‘Big bosoms.’ He indicated the magnitude of the bosoms with his cupped hands …
Jones cleared his throat and said, ‘Yes, well.’ Then, ‘But, in the summer of nineteen thirty-nine, life went sour for the Byer family, because la wife found somebody she liked better…
‘… Harry took it badly, oh, very badly indeed. And then about the first of September comes rolling around and Adolf sends his tanks into Poland. So Harry Byer, in a terrible huff, marches himself down to London and enlists in the RAF. He’ll show the wife what’s what, he’ll go and get himself killed! Hah! There! Take that!’ …
‘… somebody should have cared about this fellow who’s crucual to the war effort. Because Hitler’s got legions of goose-stepping SS goons, but Britain has scientists. And scientists win. You see?’
Thus Harry Byers, who would be the MacGuffin, were Hitchcock filming this last third of the novel, whom Furst transfers, so adroitly, from Cambridge academia to hiding-out in Nazi-occupied Paris, via the rear turret of a Wellington bomber. It also allows Furst to put Zannis at table 14 in the Brasserie Heiniger (itself a motif in every novel since the climactic shooting in Night Soldiers):
He looked up for a moment, then said, ‘What the hell is that? Behind your shoulder, in the mirror.’
‘It’s very famous,’ she said. ‘A memorial to a Bulgarian waiter, slain here a few years ago.’
‘It’s a bullet hole.’
‘Yes, it is.’
A lesser writer, less trusting of ability to convey intonation, would have resorted to an exclamation mark or two there. Meanwhile, Furst has made another of his asides: bullet holes in restaurants are preserved across Paris: from Le Croissant on the rue Montmartre (Jaurès by Raoul Villain in 1914) to the Jo Goldenberg Restaurant in Le Marais (the six random and unsolved killings of 9 August 1982).
In the brasserie, Zannis, saved by the arrival of his plat de la mer, narrowly avoids a confrontation with his neighbours in the adjacent booth:
… two SS officers with French girlfriends: puffy and blonde, green eyeshadow, pouty lips. One of the SS men looked like a precocious child … The other … was a certain kind of smart and sophisticated German who’d found, in the black uniform and death’s head insignia, a way to indulge a taste for evil.
The real threat, though (and only given a couple of episodes) is
At Gestapo headquarters on the Prinz-Albrechtstrasse, Hauptsturmfűhrer Albert Hauser
We conclude at Edirne, crossing into Turkey ahead of the advancing German invasion. Zannis is intercepted and addressed as “Captain Zannis”, by:
a short, inconsequential little fellow in a tired suit, Mr Nobody from Nowhere …
… Zannis said, ‘Captain Zannis?’
‘That’s right. You’re an officer in the British army. Didn’t you know?’
‘I didn’t.’ said Zannis.
‘Oh well,’ said the little man. ‘Always surprises, in this life.’
The little man is “S.Kolb”, the agent we encountered previously in Dark Voyage and The Foreign Correspondent.
And doubtless will find again, with Zannis — mayhap, in subsequent episodes of Furst’s alternative history of the 1930s and 1940s.