Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Spies of the Balkans

Surely one of the great pleasures of being Alan Furst would be getting to write opening paragraphs like this:
In autumn, the rains came to Macedonia.

The storm began in the north--on the fifth day of October in the year 1940--where sullen cloud lay over the mountain villages on the border of Bulgaria and Greece. By midday it had drifted south, heavier now, rolling down the valley of the Vardar River until, at dusk, it reached the heights of the city of Salonika and, by the time the streetlamps came on, rain dripped from the roof tiles in the ancient alleyways of the port and dappled the surface of the flat, dark sea.
With a couple of sentences, Furst transforms a bit of research of historical weather conditions into a slow, silent, romantic tracking shot that serves as the perfect opening for his newest spy thriller, Spies of the Balkans.

Spies of the Balkans is one of the best Furst novels I’ve read--not as impressive or ambitious as Dark Star, by any means, but offering plenty of the drama and action we’ve come to expect from Furst’s work. He can be a bit romantic at times, his heroes a bit too beloved by the ladies to be fully believable, but that’s nicely balanced by two key things he does very well: shifting the focus from the American role in the war to the European, and especially to lesser-known, yet crucially important regions, and submerging readers in the story so completely that it seems completely natural that these characters don’t know what’s coming next. Again and again, Furst has his characters risk their lives on operations that fail, or that succeed, but that our long historical view tells us couldn’t have been of any real importance. We know better, but they don’t, and while the irony inherent in that situation gives Furst’s narrative voice some of its fatalistic power, he never uses it, intentionally or by accident, to rob his characters of their agency.

Before I close, I want to share one more passage, one that puts the reader in the head of Greek police detective Costa Zannis, the book’s protagonist:
Walther. Yes, the time had come, work the slide, arm it, assume Gabi kept it loaded, assume he’d put the bullets back in the clip when he’d got done [using it as a hammer when] hanging up his pictures. For he’d surely unloaded it, knowing full well that banging loaded weapons on hard surfaces wasn’t such a good idea--the very least you could hope for was embarrassment and it quickly got worse from there. Grampa! The cat! No, Gabi had done the right thing because Gabi always did the right thing. No?

Zannis closed the umbrella and set it by the wall, freed the Walther’s clip, found it fully loaded and locked it back in place.
I love the depiction of the thought process there, and the easy way it moves from self-reassurance to the thought that Gabi can be relied on to always do things properly . . . to a realization, and acting out, of the very lesson that that the example of Gabi’s conscientiousness should teach.

It’s a professionalism and carefulness worthy of Parker, and it goes a long way towards explaining why we’re confident that ultimately Zannis will manage to elude the Nazis and live to fight another day.

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