In the long, tense years of the Cold War, spy stories and films grounded in the rivalry between East and West appeared in such profusion that the genre degenerated into self-parody, eventually giving birth to bawdy satires. The public, it appeared, had long since ceased taking spy novels seriously.

Then, in 1988, came Alan Furst with Night Soldiers, cultivating fresh ground with its wickedly insightful and historically accurate portrait of European espionage in the time between the wars. With each successive novel, Furst broadened his view of the period, setting his tales in such far-flung cities as Warsaw, Prague, Berlin, Paris, Madrid, and Salonika, the Greek setting of his latest creation, Spies of the Balkans. In these complex and tightly written stories, Furst came across as not just a talented writer but an able historian as well.

Spies of the Balkans (Night Soldiers #11) by Alan Furst (2010) 288 pages ★★★★★

For centuries, the Balkans have been a center of upheaval and intrigue

Spies of the Balkans delves into the world of Costa Zannis, a senior police official in Salonika in 1940-41 as Hitler’s war machine lurches south toward Greece. Zannis, heir apparent to the police commissioner, becomes caught up in the characteristically Byzantine political affairs of the Balkans while juggling overlapping love affairs with two extraordinary women. An anti-German military coup in Yugoslavia, an “underground railway” for Jews escaping Nazi Germany, and the British Secret Service all figure prominently in the story. It’s a gripping tale.

Spies of the Balkans is Alan Furst’s 15th novel and the 11th of his superb historical espionage stories set immediately before and during the Second World War in Europe. Each of the spy stories — I’ve read most of them — reflects the author’s seemingly insatiable appetite for in-depth research. The characters in Furst’s novels are so authentically European in attitude and outlook that it’s a surprise to learn that he was born and lives in New York.

For further reading

This book is included in The evocative Night Soldiers series from Alan Furst.

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