Costa Zannis is a high-level policeman in Salonika, Greece, who makes problems disappear. Is a prostitute blackmailing a diplomat? Has a VIP forgotten to pay for jewelry? Did a German sneak into the city on a freighter?
Since it’s 1940, the last incident galvanizes Zannis in Alan Furst’s new novel, “Spies of the Balkans.” The policeman gets even more interested when the German dies and his briefcase is found to contain photographs of Fort Rupel, which guards the pass from Bulgaria into Greece used by invaders for thousands of years. Is Hitler’s war coming south?
Author of 10 previous historical thrillers, Furst, 69, peoples Salonika with spies from various countries, Jewish refugees, SS thugs, Hungarian gangsters and Balkan detectives, all mingling with tense Greek locals.
I spoke to Furst, who lives on Long Island, at Bloomberg’s New York world headquarters.
Lundborg: The shadow of Hitler looms over most of your books. You say that he was, among other things, a great radio personality.
Furst: He’s like some of today’s media personalities who are there to make people angry. They’re opportunists who look to capitalize on people’s rage.
This whole business with the tea parties and the rest of it is about one thing, and one thing only: When people feel righteous indignation, it’s close to a sexual thrill.
Lundborg: In “The Foreign Correspondent” you point out that for the daily Mussolini radio communique, everyone in hearing distance had to stand up, even in their own homes. How does a society get to that point?
Furst: Total control and dominance: Financial loss, physical pain, family members, your children beaten in front of your eyes. How tough are you?
Lundborg: Why don’t more people flee?
Furst: With what money? Plus a lot of people stayed, including Jews in Germany, because they thought Hitler was a clown who would soon be destroyed.
Lundborg: So why wasn’t he?
Furst: Hitler was unbelievably lucky. The German army tried to assassinate him many more times than Quentin Tarantino would have you believe.
Lundborg: You write about ordinary heroism, not the James Bond kind, so how would you define it?
Furst: It’s rising to do something you know is right, despite the fact that you know it involves danger, or worse.
Lundborg: Your hero is a man who knows how to deal with tricky situations. What gives him this ability?
Furst: He’s got the great thing some cops have -- he’s a very instinctive reader of human behavior. He really understands where people are coming from, who they are and how to deal with them.
He knows to take care of things his own way, but he never sweeps injustice under the rug.
Lundborg: Zannis, like your other heroes, falls in love at first sight. Isn’t that a romantic notion?
Furst: The 1930s was a funny time. People knew they might not live for another six months, so if they were attracted to one another, there was no time to dawdle.
Lundborg: In your books, all the women love sex. Is that a fantasy?
Furst: All women love sex. I’ve never met a woman who doesn’t. It’s an American fantasy that they don’t.
Lundborg: How did you learn spycraft?
Furst: For something that’s supposed to be secret, there is a lot of intelligence history. Every time I read one book, two more are published.
Lundborg: How do you tell the difference between resistance and treason?
Furst: People talk about that in my books. They don’t want to commit treason. They don’t want to give up certain secrets that might damage their countries militarily because that’s treason.
Resistance is to fight against politics.
Lundborg: This is your 11th book, so how have things changed?
Furst: I’ve become a better writer over time just by doing it. I’ve been able to get a certain kind of brevity and deliver good, hard shots.
Lundborg: You say you write novels of consolation for smart people. How does that work?
Furst: I never realized that was true until I started getting some very serious fan mail.
Just one story: There was a man who came to all my readings, liked to have his picture taken with me, and he turned out to be one of New York’s leading oncologists.
Lundborg: Were you surprised by your own success?
Furst: A little. I didn’t know what would happen to me. When I was moving to Paris early in my career, a friend asked, “What if you never make any money?”
I said, “Then I’ll starve to death in the streets of Paris. However, that’s not necessarily the worst thing that ever happened to people.”
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(Zinta Lundborg is an editor for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)