on 13 March 2014
masterfully intricate plot with a switch round every corner. but so sparely, even cryptically written that the brain must be on full alert to follow & unravel it. evocative atmosphere, good characters, excellent history strewn with moral land-mines, a deep & troubling tale. not an airplane book. proceed at your own risk.
on 1 July 2012
Leon Bauer is, or appears to be, just an agent for American tobacco interests in Turkey. Rejected for military service, he's spent several years in Istanbul, learning the language and customs and steeping himself in the beautiful city that sits between east and west. With his German refugee wife, Anna, he has made Istanbul his home. Even after World War II ends, he has no desire to return to the United States.
Leon's other life is on the fringes of the intelligence community. He does occasional side jobs, mostly package deliveries, for a friend at the U.S. consulate. But when he gets an assignment to pick up a human package from a fishing boat one night, the job goes very wrong. Now, Leon has left the fringes of the murky world of espionage and is left stranded in its dangerous center, not knowing who he can trust, and improvising to complete his task on his own.
It turns out that Leon has a talent for acting as a lone agent, keeping his own counsel and observing everyone in his life to try to figure out what went wrong at the pickup, who might have been involved and who they might represent, all while he's working hard to figure out how to get Alexei, his human package, out of Turkey. Now he looks at everyone differently. Might there be a traitor at the consulate? Is an old friend a Russian agent? What about the hostess whose parties bring together people from all countries and interests; the guy who forges documents; the police investigator; Altan, the scrupulously-polite-but-threatening commander from Turkey's secret police; even those closest to Leon?
Leon may be new to the ruthless world of the secret agent, but is soon drawn into its moral ambiguities and compromises; using friends, even when it places them in danger, even as he learns how unworthy Alexei is of his help.
Joseph Kanon excels at drawing a picture of the immediate postwar period. Europe's cities are in ruins, loyalties in flux, power shifting and nobody knowing what the new world will look like. He's done it before in his novels, especially in The Good German and Alibi: A Novel, probably the novels most similar to Istanbul Passage. Though the mood may be the same, this is a different location, and one that adds a lot to the story. Istanbul has always been a divided city; east and west, Muslim, Christian, Jewish. In the 20th century no longer a world power, it sat uneasily between Germany and Russia during the war, and now it must walk a tightrope between the new powers, Russia and the United States. Istanbul is the perfect setting for this story and Kanon brings it alive, from the street bazaars to the bathhouses, the mosques, the back streets, the cafés where people sip tea from tulip glasses, the yalis--villas--on the waterfront, and the mysteriously beautiful and dangerous Bosphorus.
The title, Istanbul Passage, is well chosen. It can refer to to Leon's passage from almost an errand boy to a rogue agent, from a black-and-white moralist to somebody who reluctantly, and to his chagrin, learns from Alexei and Altan what it takes to survive when you're on your own. Or the title may refer to Istanbul's history as a place where people are bought, sold and smuggled. Throughout the war and afterward, the city served as a passage for refugees, especially Jewish refugees, to escape to a new life. And that Jewish refugee theme forms a part of this story as well.
This is not a shoot-em-up, action-packed thriller, but one that puts you into its time and place and in the mind of a man trying to figure out where his loyalties lie within it, and what choice to make when all the alternatives are bad.
The title quote refers to the Ottoman Empire and early 20th Century Turkey's always tenuous political situation. At the end of WWII, the country finds itself sliding into backwater status, but still hosting numerous postwar intrigues--the smuggling of Holocaust survivors to Palestine, early Cold War fencing by the Americans and Soviets, and once again defending its own territorial integrity from the historic Russian/Soviet menace.
The novel's protagonist, Leon Braun, has lived in Istanbul through the war years and is now treading water as American interests in the city are shrinking and he hangs on to hope that his seriously ill wife will recover and they can move on with their lives. Early in the story, Braun becomes involved the smuggling of an East European refugee with a highly dubious past. His involvement is in service to an official of the American Consulate General for whom he has done favors in the past. The smuggling attempt goes awry and Braun finds himself taking responsibility for the refugee's safety even as he learns more and more about the latter's horrific wartime record. It is this mounting knowledge that sets up the moral dilemma that becomes the structure of the novel.
This an intelligent, finely crafted story that picks up tension and velocity as it moves forward. The protagonist is on moral tenterhooks throughout, and because the author has effectively convinced the reader of Braun's integrity and worth, we are pulled into (and care seriously about) his decisions and fate all the way to the explosive finish.
Author Joseph Kanon is being compared to Le Carre and Greene, but there also glimpses of Eric Ambler and Alan Furst here. A great read. Highly recommended.
on 28 January 2014
This is the second book I've read by Joseph Kanon (the first being "The Good German") and yet again I was struck by what an accomplished writer he is. This book - set in Istanbul, of course - appears to be thoroughly researched, giving little details of the magnificent city that only someone familiar with it could portray so well. The characters are varied and all real in their own way. The plot is complex, yet gripping to the last page. A highly recommended read and as said by the Wall Street Journal, 'a thinking man's thriller'. Couldn't have put it better myself, except to say a thinking woman's thriller too!
on 26 June 2015
A really intelligent espionage thriller, with a first rate plot, and pretty well written.
In addition to the manipulation and betrayals common to espionage thrillers, it also explores a number of moral issues, including adultery and whether it is right to assist a former enemy (and a despicable character to boot), if he can help you against a former ally which is now an enemy.
It is set in the immediate post WWII period, against a backdrop of efforts by the Mossad le Aliyah Bet to get surviving European Jews into Palestine.
It should have been right up my street and a candidate for five stars but it wasn't, as it just seemed to drag on and on, and, unusually for my reading experiences, I was glad when I got to the end; maybe it could have been far better if it had been edited down by 25%.
Also, I felt that there was too much opacity; this may have been a device to illustrate the smoke and mirrors world of espionage but it left me with too many unanswered questions, for example: even though I am a careful reader (with an IQ of more than 160 when last tested), I still do not understand what Tommy King was up to.
I may well try other novels by Mr Kanon but will pay close attention to the Amazon reviews before doing so.
"Istanbul Passage" is one of the best books that I have read for some time. It is an expertly written spy thriller set in Istanbul just after the end of the Second World War. Leon Bauer, an American on the fringes of the colourful espionage community in Istanbul, gets sucked right into it's vortex after an errand to pick up a Romanian spy,with a despicable past, from a boat goes wrong. Leon and this unsavoury character have to evade detection from the Turkish secret service, the Russians as well as the Americans , as Leon tries desperately to smuggle him out of the country. Can Leon keep him alive and keep himself free from captivity as well ? The author creates a superb picture of 1940's Istanbul in this book- it really comes to life and the reader feels part of it. The detail is fantastic and the characterisation and dialogue is really sharp and impressive. There is plenty of action and unexpected twists,turns and complications in the plot to enjoy and appreciate. I couldnt recommend this intelligent book highly enough.
“You couldn’t fight the next war until you’d lied about the last one.” ‒ from ISTANBUL PASSAGE
“Life is like that, don’t you think? Mostly bad choices. All you can do is keep your balance between them.” ‒ from ISTANBUL PASSAGE
ISTANBUL PASSAGE by Joseph Kanon, similar in tone and pacing to John le Carré’s spy stories, is a novel of espionage set in Istanbul shortly after the end of World War II. The potential reader should realize, though, that in no way is this an “action thriller.” Rather, it’s heavy on character and plot development in a milieu where nothing is at it seems.
Kanon’s protagonist here is Leon Bauer, ostensibly the local rep for an American tobacco company. Leon has spent the war doing odd jobs for the resident spy in the U.S. consulate while, at the same time, helping to smuggle East European Jews to Palestine. Leon’s latest assignment for his American controller ‒ to facilitate the defection to the United States of a former Romanian fascist who went over to the Russians ‒ has gone horribly wrong. In a gun battle along the shore of the Bosphorus, Leon kills an unlikely assailant, an act that leaves him stranded in a minefield of uncertain outcomes.
In addition to the joys of ISTANBUL PASSAGE being an intelligent read, its location in Istanbul provided me with a bonus personal pleasure. The city, the Constantinople of revered history, is perhaps the single most desirable travel location remaining on my Bucket List. Unfortunately, I haven’t made it there yet, but through Kanon’s descriptive prose I could get a vicarious sense of the place. Galata Bridge is my ultimate goal.
Some might say ISTANBUL PASSAGE is plodding. Rather, I would contend that it’s deliciously and credibly layered. Unless you’re a speed reader, finishing its 401 (paperback, U.S. edition) pages will take several days at least. But, it’s worth every minute of your time if you appreciate quality examples of the genre.
on 22 August 2014
Joseph Kanon crafted this story beautifully, and I enjoyed it immensely. I like broad-based stories, especially ones with international intrigues, politics, espionage, culture and cuisine. Istanbul in the late 1940s captured the essence of that flavor with Western Europe and Eastern Europe gearing towards cold war, Arabism on the rise as Israel appears on the map. Joseph Kanon did a great job coming up with a story from this amazing setting, using a fascinating plot and masterful characters. The colorfulness of this story reminds me of Triple Agent Double Cross. Overall, this is a well written story that is full of surprises right up to the last page, with enough suspense to keep the reader wondering what the next page would hold.