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BOOK REVIEW

History sets the stage in spy saga with heart

By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / June 15, 2010

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The best way to think of Alan Furst’s ongoing series of historical thrillers (“Spies of the Balkans’’ is the 11th) is in terms of music. They’re a theme and variations, with Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli doing the playing. They’re the musicians because the theme is a place and time, Europe in the late ’30s and early ’40s. The variations are plots in which a good man with an intriguing job — foreign correspondent, soldier, film producer, sea captain, or, as in “Spies of the Balkans,’’ police official — finds himself confronting Nazi evil.

Such confrontation has its rewards: good food, beautiful women, colorful locales, and (shh, don’t tell) a happy ending. Just as Furst readers know the Nazis will ultimately lose, so can they rest assured his heroes will live to fight another day.

Not that they don’t face adversity. Costa Zannis, the protagonist of “Spies of the Balkans,’’ gets wounded in a bombing raid and runs afoul of the Gestapo on a mission to occupied Paris. But no small part of the very large charm of Furst’s novels is that wit, honor, and, yes, excellent sex are the order of the day (and night).

The plot of “Spies of the Balkans’’ centers on smuggling Jewish refugees to Turkey. Costa — “not bad-looking at all though more boxer than movie star, a tough guy, in the way he moved, in the way he held himself. Until you looked at his face, which suggested quite a different sort of person. . . . So, maybe a tough guy, but your friend the tough guy’’ — becomes a crucial part of the operation.

Costa lives in Salonika, the port city in northeastern Greece, but that’s only a base of operations. Along the way, he joins in staving off an Italian invasion, helps out British intelligence (that mission to Paris), has a hair-raising flight across a goodly chunk of Nazi-occupied Europe, and participates in a Yugoslav coup. He also draws the attention of the fabulously beautiful wife of the richest man in Salonika (she certainly draws Costa’s attention).

Furst’s laconic yet lush prose makes all this highly palatable and at least passably plausible. He balances the irresistible unreality of his plots with the no less irresistible reality of his period detail. He’s a master of atmosphere. Salonika could hardly come across more vividly if it were onscreen.

In fact, the closest counterparts to Furst’s novels are the tough-talking yet tender-hearted films of that era — “Port of Shadows,’’ say, or “Casablanca.’’ Like those films, Furst’s books offer nothing all that profound.

They’re entertainments, only with world-historical décor. But when surfaces are this polished, who misses depth? Savoir-faire and sentimentality are a hard combination to beat.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

SPIES OF THE BALKANS

By Alan Furst

Random House, 288 pp., $26