Well-turned spy novel
BOOK REVIEW: Istanbul Passage by Joseph Kanon (Kindle, $US12.99; free chapter preview)
This well-turned spy novel tells a tale of moral ambiguity and the compromises a man has to make when there are no good choices.
It is 1945 and Istanbul, the city where east and west have intermingled since time immemorial, is changing.
Turkey was a neutral during the hostilities but now World War II has ended and the cold war has barely begun. Holocaust survivors, former Nazis, Russian spies and others fleeing the wreckage of Europe are moving through Istanbul, watched by the Turkish secret police, the Emniyet.
The German and Japanese embassies and spies have disappeared but Mossad is active in smuggling Jewish refugees into Palestine, the Russians are searching for war criminals, and the Americans are focussed on spiriting people with special knowledge back to the USA.
Leon Bauer is a tobacco businessman who has acted from time to time as a courier for friend Tommy King - an American intelligence agent. Leon’s Jewish wife has worked for Mossad moving a trickle of refugees through Turkey into Palestine. The Turkish agents concentrate on her not him. She is Leon’s cover until she sinks into a catonic depression triggered by family tragedy.
Leon likes playing the intelligence game, and regrets the possibility of being repatriated back to the States, so he is easily persuaded to carry out one last assignment.
This appears to be a simple matter of a rendezvous with a fishing boat to pick up an unknown Rumanian and deliver him to a safe house. In the darkness shots are fired and a man dies.
As his world suddenly explodes around him, Leon realises that the assumptions he had of right and wrong, of friendship and loyalty have to be questioned, and the answers are not clear.
He hides Alexei, the defector, as they move from one safe house to another just one step ahead of the Russian, Turkish and American agents who all have an interest in him.
Leon speaks Turkish, has a talent for thinking on his feet, and the knowledge of Istanbul’s alleys and back stairs which stands him in good stead in this game of cat and mouse.
Leon soon finds out that Alexei has a very dark past and has been involved in an atrocity where Jews were shamefully murdered. Should he deliver him safely to the Americans or leave him to the Russians or Turks and a likely death?
Then he finds out that the game has moved on, there is a leak at the American consulate and another killing. The pawns in the espionage game don’t know their masters have changed their minds.
A handover of the Rumanian Alexei is attempted, Leon is badly injured, a bitter sweet love affair ends and a choice with golden chains is offered to him. He takes it aware that it is not a good choice, but a less bad choice.
As a setting Istanbul is a peerless location; the exotic, shabby beauty of the city and its place on the straits of the Bosporus are wonderfully described. This is a book set in the older part of Istanbul but the author takes care to move the story through the city in such a way that a reader who is familiar with Istanbul today will be familiar with the geographical details.
A close consultation with Google Earth and some snippets of Turkish culture and history gleaned from Wikipedia enrich the reader’s experience. The city itself becomes a character in the novel; it is obvious that Kanon knows Istanbul very well and he uses its history to effect.
Sometimes the story slows down as Leon rambles to his comatose wife Anna, and at other times the staccato delivery of terse speech can become annoying, however these are minor quibbles.
Overall this is an excellent example of the espionage genre and is comparable to anything Alan Furst has written. An excellent book to curl up with and read accompanied by a good drink on a cold winter’s night.