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Review: Spying isn't Greek to this 'Balkans' hero

SPIES OF THE BALKANS, by Alan Furst. Random House, 268 pp., $26.

It's one thing to write great spy novels; it's another thing to write great characters into spy novels.

And that distinction is what makes Alan Furst a modern-day master of the genre: He knows that, like a good mystery, good intrigue is much easier to follow with a rich, captivating character as your guide.

In "Spies of the Balkans," Furst has another one: Costa Zannis, a police detective in the port city of Salonika, Greece, who specializes in resolving dicey cases involving the city's powerful and / or unsavory.

And in October 1940, where the book starts, there are plenty of both.

Greece is not at war - yet - but sabers and artillery are rattling closer to its borders, and war's advance men and women are already on the ground. When Zannis is called to investigate a suspicious German "tourist" on a tramp steamer at the port, the ensuing pursuit convinces him it's time to choose sides.

And when Zannis crosses paths with a German woman who is trying to help fellow Jews flee her country, he makes his choice: to help. And that choice, in turn, leads him deep into a tangle of European espionage that stretches from Turkey to Paris to Berlin.

But "Spies of the Balkans" - Furst's 11th spy novel set during the years leading up to and into World War II - isn't a carefully plotted chess match, nor is it a good guy/ bad guy melodrama. It's a story of survival, of passion, of good people making difficult choices and bad people making good choices for their own reasons.

Zannis, at the center of it all, isn't perfect. He often is more focused on his romances - or his beloved dog, Melissa - than the task at hand. Though he doesn't always have the big picture in focus, he is savvy enough to see the outlines before others do and to adjust accordingly.

It's in Zannis' forging of alliances that Furst delves deep into the Balkans' shifting terrain. Greece, ruled in 1940 by a military dictator, is wary of Mussolini's Italy, which has just conquered its neighbor Albania and is looking for more "glory" to keep pace with Germany, which has just swallowed the bulk of Western Europe. The British, after being driven from the Continent, are eager to keep the Italians and the Germans out of Greece, their historical ally; so are the Yugoslavs, though their country is torn between pro- and anti-Hitler factions. And the rest of the Balkans is similarly caught in the middle.

Zannis uses his contacts, and street smarts, to develop a network across the region, a network based on trust and understanding. In the process, Furst shows - without telling - that the flip side of that adage about evil triumphing when good men do nothing is also true.

Which gives "Spies of the Balkans" an air of hope, even if the world it's depicting is descending into darkness.

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