Alan Furst has done this century what Eric Ambler and John le Carré did in the last. He has achieved a complete reinvention of the Second World War spy novel as a vehicle for deeper insights into the human character, especially as it come under the pressure of accelerating history. Spies of the Balkans is the latest of his page-turners about the coming threat of Nazism and German occupation in the regions of Europe that were neither immediately conquered like France or Poland, nor which held out like Britain. The impact of the war on the Iberian peninsular, or on those central European countries like Switzerland, Hungary and Romania which tried to stay aloof from the conflict, remains little-known.
Providing visas were issued or falsified, there was far more travel, trade and contact between these countries than is appreciated by the British-American literary tradition - which holds that all Europe became a no-go concentration camp under the Nazi jackboot. Letters posted in Berlin arrived in Stockholm or Salonika. There was regular train, ship and plane travel. Teleprinters connected offices. Police, doctors, teachers worked, as life continued independently of the full horrors of war.
Furst writes about this world overshadowed by, but not totally plunged into, full-scale conflict. His hero, Costas Zannis, is a kind of special-branch cop in Salonika, the Greek city that was home to 400,000 Jews in 1940 and almost none today. He tidies up messes for the city bosses, oiling wheels in a Greece living under the Metaxas dictatorship and still not sure if it is post-Ottoman, truly Balkan or possibly European. Furst provides a fine history lesson as Mussolini's botched invasion of Greece is repelled and neighbouring states like Yugoslavia wait uneasily to see if they can avoid war.
For the first time, Furst puts a fair amount of sex into a novel. Zannis begins with a British spy as a lover and moves onto other women as the MI6 woman is recalled to London. As with a character from late Roth or Updike, this allows views on fellatio to get an airing, although I prefer the rather more ascetic heroes of earlier Furst novels.
Zannis fights briefly in the war against Italy. He helps German Jews escape from Berlin. This permits an introduction to a civilised Gestapo agent who is surely a cousin to Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunter. Under pressure from MI6, he rescues a British airman from Paris. Furst's characters have the foibles, frailties and fears of humanity under pressure.
The failed politics of the Balkans are still with us. Thessaloniki now has an ugly religious politics that stops rapprochement with Macedonia. This novel gets the impossible politics of the Balkans about right: it is a thriller but with real people and real history in it. I cannot wait for my next Furst.
Denis MacShane MP was Minister for the Balkans 2001-2005