In the most common type of thriller – conservatively, 99 examples out of 100 – a protagonist pieces together puzzling events until the dastardly plans of an antagonist are discovered – and there ensues a game of cat and mouse, or a race against time, so that the good guy(s) can defuse the bomb, or stop the speeding bus, or whatever, five seconds before the world explodes. Sometimes, the period of puzzlement is dispensed with, as in Ethan Hunt’s missions impossible, whether announced by seventies’ tape recorders or post-millennium exploding sunglasses.
Sometimes the reader knows what’s going on before the protagonist. Sometimes, for extra fun/heartburn, the police think the good guy is a bad guy, so our hero has to do his work impeded by the authorities as well as his antagonists. But there is more ambitious kind of thriller that dispenses with what will happen at the end, and simply drops us into an exciting frame, inhabited by an exciting, somewhat exotic character. Here, the pleasure of the experience inheres in the steady elaboration of an interesting historical episode, or a side of society we know little about, or the intimate view of a type little known to typical readers.
This is classic Furst territory. For years now, Furst has been sketching European episodes just before and in the early years of WWII, in which evocation of time and place take precedence over the action.
So, once again, in Spies of the Balkans. Beginning as it does in Salonika in 1940, we already know the Nazis will ultimately blazon their triumph by hanging the Swastika from the Acropolis. This leaves Furst free to build up a splendidly-grounded account of seven months in the life of Costa Zannis, a detective in Salonika, as the war approaches.
Pursuing a mysterious German arrival at the local port, Zannis and his Sephardi Jewish sidekick (Salonika is described in the novel as the Jerusalem of the Balkans) discover photographs of a fort protecting the northern entrance to Greece. Here, then, is our theme: A novel about Jews, told from the viewpoint of a Greek detective as the dark shadow of Hitler’s intentions spread down to Europe’s Southern tip.
It isn’t long before a wealthy, temporarily protected German Jewess, Emilia Krebs, seeks Zannis’s help getting Jews out of Berlin to neutral Turkey. Here, we feel – after we have been introduced to Zannis’ family history and girlfriend, and absorbed something of the mélange of British and Turkish “diplomats” gathering information for their various paymasters – is the real beginning of the book.
Propelled in part by the discovery that two librarians Emilia had tried to help have disappeared, Zannis agrees. But he agrees, also, because he is one of the men Raymond Chandler had in mind when he wrote, “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean… He must be the best man in his world, and a good enough man for any world.”
Thus begins an engaging tale of courage in the face of overwhelming odds, in which a bare few will escape the comprehensiveness of the Nazi savagery. In the telling, we are treated to a splendid – if that is the word – education in exactly how Southern Europe came under Hitler’s sway, and of how almost every country buckled without a fight – Greece making a distinctly honorable exception until the very end.
Furst may not lean too heavily on the suspense that gets most thriller writers through their story, but it would hardly be fair to share too many of the details. Suffice to say that, while Spies suffers from a few failures of style and a slightly perfunctory love affair, its steady unfolding of character (while not quite that achievement of great fiction in which the crucial acts of the main characters are at once utterly surprising and utterly inevitable) is a pleasure throughout. It is the signal achievement of the book that we come to feel quite at home among the rain-washed cobbles of Salonika and its denizens, as Zannis’ operation of a secret escape route to Turkey brings him into contact with inhabitants of almost every Salonikan stripe.
Indeed, the only oddity is that, other than his partner, Zannis doesn’t meet any Salonikan Jews. Busy getting German Jews out, he doesn’t seem to ponder what will happen in his own city when the Germans march in.
It may be that history has tied Furst’s hands. The Jews of Salonika largely stayed until the Nazis arrived, when it was too late to leave – except by cattle-train to Auschwitz. Nevertheless, by peopling his thriller with characters who have only contempt for Hitler’s behavior to the Jews, Furst is, by implication, granting the Greeks a degree of heroism the nation as a whole cannot claim. Many Athenian non-Jews repeatedly and heroically risked their lives successfully to preserve much of the local Jewish community. Salonika’s much larger community, however, was destroyed almost in its entirety, without significant demur from neighbors, and sometimes with their support.
Furst ends his book on a positive note: the fleeing librarians turn up in America; a couple of teenagers tear the swastika down from the Acropolis shortly after it is raised. More important, however, is an implication probably unintended. Resistance to the Nazis at their most powerful was dangerous and difficult, but a determined group could nevertheless frustrate their designs. Now, six million Jews once again find themselves in the crosshairs of a genocidal culture. Will the world take a stand now, or buckle until it has let the odds lengthen dreadfully once more – and then buckle again?